By Piper Siblik, RORG Student Team
It seems hard to believe I’ve wrapped up my time with RORG and the RORG Team. It was just over a year ago that I was first meeting with RORG Director Eliana Brown to discuss her desire to develop an interactive, web-based app to showcase the species of the garden! Since then, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the incredible volunteers, team members, and beautiful plants of the Red Oak Rain Garden, and will miss all of it.
Before joining the RORG team, my vocational background was primarily in ecosystem restoration, management, and assessment. I believe all my previous work led me on a path of discovery where I picked up practical knowledge and skills that allow me to have a deeply personal and au courant connection to the work I do here. Prior to RORG, I worked with an NRES lab where I picked up plant identification skills, soil classification skills, and a greater understanding of wetland ecology and existing barriers to native revegetation. This work also introduced me to the multitude of ways that vegetation stabilizes and contributes to ecosystem health and water purity.
Another previous experience included doing restoration work in the Chicago suburbs, focusing on eradicating non-native invasive species to benefit native vegetated ecosystems. It was fulfilling to provide a hands-on effort to restore natural ecologies. This work introduced me to a form of urban ecology that had previously been unfamiliar to me.
Introduction to RORG & Producing the RORG Virtual Map
Last spring, I began looking for internships for the coming summer. I was reflecting on my previous work experiences and my education as a dual Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and Geography + Geographic Information Sciences undergraduate and how I could effectively combine these degrees in a way that affected visible change in my community. Given the oversized impact of humans on natural systems, I understood the importance of protecting natural ecologies for the benefit of both human and ecological health. However, I was frustrated with how academic and/or inaccessible ecological solutions appeared to the everyday citizen. I am a huge proponent of small-scale, local solutions that bring local people together to protect their shared resources, so a project like RORG immediately appealed to me.
I was excited that my work with RORG would directly impact the local water table and serve as a positive interface between the community and accessible green stormwater solutions, so I began creating the interactive web map. With this new resource, users can access a map of the rain garden while on-site to explore and identify the nearly 60 species of plants located there. This will be a great tool for our volunteers who give their time weekly to the stewardship of the garden and visitors who might come by when no one else is available to answer questions. Along with a graphic that shows where each species is located, the map also contains specific stewardship data for each species and an image, which not only benefits volunteers in the garden but can also inspire visitors to plant species that would be suitable for their own needs. The map will serve as a valuable outreach tool to expand the knowledge base of green infrastructure and native rain gardening. For more information, see Extension’s news release.
In July of 2022, I was incredibly lucky to travel to Duluth, MN, with Extension Specialist Lisa Merrifield and fellow RORG student team member Gabriel Harper-Hagen, to network and share the incredible work we are doing in Central Illinois at the North Central Region Water Network’s Climate Intersections Conference. I had never been to Duluth before and was impressed with the lakefront city and its efforts to manage its water resources in equitable and sustainable ways. At the conference, I participated in several poster sessions where I presented my work on the interactive RORG map as a tool for increasing education and outreach and the importance of green infrastructure such as rain gardens in urban settings. It was incredibly gratifying to share the history of the garden, exhibit the great work of all the volunteers, and share this new outreach tool with people from across the country.
The one thing I am regretful about is that my time with RORG came to an end before spring stewardship sessions started back up. Throughout my time as a RORG intern, I always looked forward to getting my hands dirty and catching up with the many volunteers who are the heart and soul of the rain garden. The weekly volunteer sessions during the summer and fall were a great way to get a hands-on introduction to the species I was charting on the new app and I was able to form a genuine connection with the plants I was quantifying. I feel eternally grateful to Layne Knoche, the landscape designer of the garden for his fountain of knowledge. If he’s around, there’s no way to leave the garden without at least one new fact about the plants, composition, or function of the Red Oak Rain Garden.
To future internship applicants, students, and volunteers: I cannot stress enough how valuable a resource RORG and the RORG team are to campus. If you have a chance to work with the incredible team of people here, I wholeheartedly encourage you to. You don’t have to have a background in ecology, natural resources, or landscape design. There is something for everyone at RORG. I guarantee you will leave with invaluable human connections, random plant facts you will always find yourself referencing in the most random moments, and a greatly expanded understanding of creative and FUNCTIONAL native stormwater solutions.
At the time of writing, Piper was a senior at UIUC pursuing a dual major in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences concentrating in Ecosystem Stewardship and Restoration Ecology and Geography + Geographic Information Sciences concentrating in GIS. Piper enjoys outdoor recreation, critical analysis of pop culture and media, and cycles through periods of intense dedication to various athletic pursuits such as bouldering, ice skating, and basketball. With a background in restoration and ecology, Piper gravitated towards Red Oak Rain Garden due to its native vegetative diversity and value as a community resource.