Green Team Teens Dig In to Heal Their Watersheds

In 2009 Calvin College faculty members Gail Heffner and Dave Warners launched Plaster Creek Stewards after learning that Plaster Creek (named for the plaster mill set up in 1840 to use the creek’s gypsum) is the most contaminated creek in West Michigan. Plaster Creek Stewards is a collaboration of Calvin faculty and students working with local schools, congregations, and community partners to restore health and beauty to the Plaster Creek watershed.

In the summer of 2012 Heffner and Warners added a new Plaster Creek Stewards initiative to involve local high school students in watershed restoration. The Green Team students learn about watershed ecology, develop job skills, and help install and maintain rain gardens. The Green Team soon doubled in size when Trout Unlimited sponsored another group of teenagers living in the Rogue River watershed to work with them.

Now a diverse group—the Plaster Creek urban students and the Rogue River suburban and rural students—bonded in a shared mission to improve the environments where they live. These new friends can be heard singing as they work and sharing lunch together sitting in trees!

The 16 Green Team students are addressing the problem of excess storm water that flows into local creeks after heavy rains. So much of the land that once absorbed the rain has been paved over that now storm water flows over streets, parking lots, and sidewalks. That runoff carries pollutants like gasoline and herbicides into the storm sewers where it drains directly into Plaster Creek, Rogue River and eventually into the Grand River and Lake Michigan.

Green Team members learn how to install green infrastructure such as rain gardens and bioswales that capture storm water where it falls. Here the Green Team is creating a rain garden by digging out the land between the sidewalk and street and planting native Michigan plants whose long roots will capture the polluted runoff water before it reaches the creek. After planting the curb is cut so that storm water can flow naturally into the rain garden. This short colorful video tells the whole story.

While cleaning up two West Michigan watersheds is one obvious objective, another goal is to encourage Green Team members to consider college after they graduate. The high school Green Team students work in the field alongside college student mentors and they have classroom sessions at the college, all helping to de-mystify the college experience. This exposure to higher education has inspired this diverse group of teenagers to go on to college after high school.