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Local high school students work to restore their watershed

Plaster Creek Stewards installs rain gardens to ease stormwater flooding and expands to a new Rogue River team.
Alexis with Plaster Creek Stewards

Alexis with Plaster Creek Stewards /Plaster Creek Stewards

Underwriting support from:

/Plaster Creek Stewards

Plaster Creek Stewards working in Cedar Creek

Plaster Creek Stewards working in Cedar Creek /Plaster Creek Stewards

Written by Deanna Geehoed and Micah Warners.


The Plaster Creek Green Team is celebrating its third summer of engaging high school students in watershed restoration. The Green Team is an initiative of Plaster Creek Stewards that provides local teens an opportunity to both learn about the creek and help to restore it. We, Deanna Geehoed and Micah Warners, are two Calvin College students who have had the privilege to work alongside this great group of students together with their leader, middle school science teacher Gary Warners. Our activities include learning about stream and watershed ecology, planting rain gardens, collecting seeds, removing invasive plants and raising seedlings for future plantings. Two sessions of the Green Team brought together eight high school students, four in June and four in July. These high schoolers come from many different backgrounds, but all have the common goal of restoring their damaged watershed.

One of the biggest problems within the Plaster Creek watershed is the sudden high volume of stormwater entering the creek whenever it rains. Stormwater runoff comes from rainwater flowing over hard surfaces such as sidewalks and roads instead of soaking into the land. This water then goes into storm drains, most of which drain straight into Plaster Creek. The sudden gush of dirty, warm water is harmful to the natural flow dynamics of the creek, and to the aquatic life within it. Plaster Creek Stewards, with help from the Green Team and other community members, have been installing stormwater-capturing rain gardens this summer in Alger Heights, an urban neighborhood in Grand Rapids that is very close to the creek. These rain gardens capture stormwater by diverting it from streets into the rain garden through a curb-cut, or a break in the curb. In these gardens water can soak into the ground and be absorbed and filtered by native plants which also enhance our local biodiversity. Less water flowing into the creek reduces erosion, helps prevent flooding, and improves the health of Plaster Creek.

As college students, it has been awesome for us to work alongside the high school Green Team students this summer. Although many of the kids are not accustomed to working long days outside in the dirt, they have been very enthusiastic.

“I wish I could do this all summer,” said Green Team member Jason during one of the last days of his session. Another Green Team member, Elizabeth, expressed how much she enjoyed the learning aspect of this group. “I never would have thought about water this way before I started.”  It has been great to see the excitement and interest these students have for their summer work.

But wait there’s more!

A new Green Team has sprouted this summer in the Rogue River watershed. With funding from an EPA Urban Waters grant, Plaster Creek Stewards has been able to replicate the Green Team in the Rogue River watershed with the help of Trout Unlimited.  Eight high school students from Rockford and Cedar Springs do similar work but are focused in the Rogue River Watershed. The Plaster Creek and Rogue River Green Teams often collaborate for classroom sessions and restoration projects. They have been able to learn about the different challenges faced by these two watershed, as well as the common problem of stormwater runoff. And the learning extends beyond watersheds to involve learning about each other as well. Plaster Creek Green Team students tend to come from a more urban setting, while Rogue River Green Team member have typically been raised in a suburban or rural area. While we may come from different places, it has been really cool to learn from each other and to come together for a common goal: restoration of our watersheds upstream and downstream. It has been incredibly gratifying to see everyone working hand in hand, side by side.

While the work itself has been rewarding, we have also had a lot of fun on the Green Team. We have enjoyed moments of catching frogs, chasing ducks, scaring mice out of the greenhouse, planting plants in the rain and singing on the job. It has become common habit to climb a tree as a group after our lunch break. We should also mention that the Green Team doubles as a fearless ultimate frisbee team...  

During the final week of the June session we had a night of celebration for the two groups of students. After four weeks of hard work, the students and their parents enjoyed an evening of food and reflection. Every student was given an opportunity to read from their reflection journal and share how they felt about this summer experience. Overall, students conveyed gratefulness for this opportunity. The fact that they made money doing this summer job was nice, but it was also evident how much the students took to heart the lessons learned about watershed restoration. Students had their eyes opened to both the positive and negative effects that humans can have on the natural world around them. Many expressed how they intended to live their lives in a more environmentally friendly way than when they started the summer.

One additional goal of the Green Team experience is to help high school students think more intentionally about attending college and learn what its like to be a college student. This is where we (Deanna and Micah) are the experts. We had numerous casual and more serious conversations with the high schoolers about the joys and struggles of college. Our hope is that through this experience, college will become less intimidating and more inviting. On our last morning together each high school Green Team participant was given an opportunity to shadow a Calvin College student researcher. One Green Team student, Beckett, expressed how he would like to do research in the future after his shadowing experience with three biology students studying ecotoxicology in Great Lakes waterfowl. Other research topics included E. coli bacteria in Plaster Creek, whale anatomy research, microbes in ant intestines, hydrology modelling, woodland restoration and more. The research shadowing was another great way to expose green team members to college life, giving them further insight into the everyday life of a college student.

As for us college student leaders, we are sad to see the high schoolers go, but we are excited about their futures. It is really cool to build solid friendships even over just four weeks of being together as a team. We hope the Green Team experience has given these young people a greater love for the outdoors, a better understanding of their home watersheds and more possibilities for their future beyond high school.

To learn more check out Plaster Creek Stewards on Facebook or visit our website.

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