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Restoring nature - and lives - on Chicago's Southeast Side

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Chicago’s developed a reputation as a green city.  And a lot of attention’s gone in making the emerald span of lakeside parks shine. But the city’s also working to improve less well-known areas, including Hegewisch Marsh on the far Southeast Side. The marsh is an ecologically valuable wetland, but it was also a dumping ground for big-industry. One twist is that the people improving this long-neglected place are people society sometimes forgets.

Paul Hickenbottom spent last weekend at Hegewisch Marsh, a 130-acre wetland at 130th Street and Torrence Avenue - near the Ford Motor Plant. His job? Pulling out weeds and invasive, harmful plants.
HICKENBOTTOM: I’m a restoration tech. We do restoration work. We do restoration work. We remove invasive species, cut down trees, plant I.D.

Hickenbottom’s part of a year-old project called Green Corp Calumet. It’s put on through Chicago’s Department of Environment, and the purpose is to provide forestry training, especially to people who have a hard time landing steady work. That includes people who with criminal records, people like Hickenbottom.

HICKENBOTTOM: I had 20 straight years. First Degree murder.
PUENTE: How old were you when you were convicted of murder?
HICKENBOTTOM: I was 25. Young and stupid. That’s an episode of my life that I assume forgot.

But it’s hard to forget because that conviction hampers Hickenbottom’s ability to hold onto to a job. Hickenbottom got out of prison five years ago. He took a stab janitorial work, and then delivering food. But neither stuck.

Now, he’s 48 years old and says maybe he’s just now finding his calling - doing work for Green Corp Calumet.

HICKENBOTTOM: I never thought this would be for me but it grows on you. I would love to stay in the green field. I want to go into the nursery to bring a plant up from birth and watch it flourish.

Zach Taylor is a guy who likes to hear these kinds of comments. Taylor heads of Green Corp Calumet, which happens to be funded by the U.S. Forestry Service. Trainees receive 18 months of on the job experience. Taylor says participants are paid, but there’s an even more important benefit: they might have a chance to do restoration work, for good.

TAYLOR: There’s probably four or five contractors in the Chicagoland region that do strictly ecological restoration work. There are also a lot of wetland mitigation projects. Anytime you fill in a wetland, it needs to be restored and replaced in some way. These type of companies come in and do that.

ELMORE: I rode past here on a daily basis. I didn’t have a clue what was over here. I’ve lived in this area for 30 years and never, ever knew what this was.

That’s Brenda Elmore, who’s also helping to restore Hegewisch Marsh. She spent five years in prison for selling drugs. Elmore’s been out two years now. She tried a career in cosmetology but fell out of it.

Elmore says she’s not disappointed, though. She says working in the Hegewisch Marsh has a calming effect on her -- even on bad days.

ELMORE: You can be upset when you come to work but just coming out to places like this into the marsh, it’s calming to see deer. You don’t see deer in the urban area. We’ve seen all kinds of things out here. You know like snakes. I’m not very found of snakes but I’m getting a little better.

Elmore says she wishes she had been exposed to nature earlier in life.

ELMORE: I couldn’t image ever being a part of that I’m a part of now. And it has totally changed my life.

Now that she’s found this experience in nature, Elmore hopes she’ll never let it go. Elmore and the other Green Corp Calumet trainees will wrap up their work by the end of this summer.

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