Chicago’s south side isn’t exactly known as a sanctuary. But it contains a secret wealth of wetlands, prairie, sand savannah, and woodlands. A partnership between Audubon Chicago Region, the Eden Place Nature Center, the Cook County Forest Preserve, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has led to the creation of Wild Indigo Nature Explorations, which organizes monthly field trips into the area’s hidden natural spaces.

The focus is local: Participants—even the guides—come from the surrounding communities. “We didn’t want it to be like these cookie-cutter programs where a lot of academics come into the neighborhood,” says Michael Howard, executive director of Eden Place. Instead Wild Indigo Nature Explorations trains locals to organize and lead the trips. To date, these fellows have brought in veteran volunteers for tree plantings and fitted whole families with boots for trekking through marshlands. And they have inspired not only restoration activities in the Lake Calumet area—home to willow flycatchers and common moorhens—they have also helped a diverse community of kids connect to nature for the first time.

“Some of these kids come from really tough environments,” says Judy Pollock, director of bird conservation for Audubon Chicago Region. The field trips help them discover that humans, too, can find refuge in the city.

This story originally ran in the January-February 2014 issue as "Opening Eyes on the South Side."

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