Working Together from Sun till Dine

Contemporary translations of Robert Burns’ Scots-language poem “Auld Lang Syne” often include the following stanza:

We two have paddled in the stream,

From morning sun till dine;

But seas between us broad have roared

Since auld lang syne.

At Friends, we have had our fair share of flow this year with our award winning programs, talented staff, and generous members and volunteers uniting to advance our mission and uplift community voices. And we have faced our share of roaring seas with the advancing impacts of the climate crisis, the sometimes too slow pace of environmental enforcement, and the lingering legacy of river pollution that often obscures the view.

Nevertheless, looking back at 2023 our successes are solid and stretch as far as the 156 miles of the Chicago-Calumet River system. It is with your support that Friends achieved many incredible accomplishments this year which improve and protect the river system for communities, public health, wildlife, and climate resiliency; we cannot list them all, but a few that stand out include:

Our Chicago River Schools Network (CRSN) grew our collaboration with teachers to advance the our STEM goals by integrating our Natural Solutions Tool into classroom lessons with a priority placed on understanding environmental injustices and how we can repair them by harnessing the power of nature. We also deepened our outreach to schools in the Calumet Region near the Altgeld Gardens and Phillip Murray Homes. During the past school year, the CRSN’s student impact totaled 20,592 via direct programming, including field trips to the river with Friends’ staff. The Chicago River Student Congress engaged hundreds of students from across the watershed who taught each other about their research about the river and its value to them in a professional conference-like setting.

Our Litter Free Chicago-Calumet River initiative continues to increase in impact and each new addition to the program brings new success. In its first full year of implementation, our network of Litter Free Supply Stations were a big hit with over 500 volunteers from across the watershed checking out litter pickup supplies to hold cleanups in their communities.

Collaborating with Wendella Tours & Cruises and The Wrigley Building, Friends deployed the Chicago River Trash Trap in the Main Stem of the river in July, and since then it has pulled up to 44 pounds of trash and debris every week. Working with researchers from Loyola University Chicago, we are cataloging the trash to understand its composition. This data informs our local actions and we are part of a global effort to analyze it through the Ocean Conservancy that advances research to impact public policy to reduce litter.

Friends continues to support our goals for biodiversity, water quality, and resiliency through ongoing restoration activities. In 2023, although limited by a warm winter, we removed 30 acres of invasive species at Sweet Woods Forest Preserve in southern Cook County. This effort will not only help native plants to recolonize the landscape but also capture more stormwater in the ground.

With the Trust for Public Land, we released the Natural Solutions Tool to a packed audience during the 2023 Chicago River Summit in March. This innovative GIS-based mapping analysis tool is helping stakeholders across the Chicago region identify where investments in nature based green infrastructure are most needed for healthy, equitable, biodiverse, protected, and connected landscapes and communities. The Natural Solutions Tool went on to win the Climate Champion Award this past November at the Chicago Innovation Awards and a Force of Nature Award from the Chicago Wilderness Alliance.

Speaking of awards, Friends’ McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum was honored to receive the Boat Captain's Award from the Canal Corridor Association, and Friends was also named a Finalist for the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management’s Alford-Axelson Award for Nonprofit Managerial Excellence for a second consecutive year. The Alford-Axelson Award celebrates organizations that strong and effective leadership, solid financial management, and a strong sense of integrity throughout organization’s culture among other aspects of excellence.

In September, Friends and the Beaver Institute co-hosted the 1st Midwest Beaver Summit when more than 700 people participated in the free virtual event to discuss the essential role of beavers in forestalling the climate crisis, slowing flooding, and restoring wetlands. The summit is a first step toward putting together a network of Midwestern stakeholders to spread the word about the incredible ecological importance of beavers and modern tools for managing human-beaver conflicts nonlethally.

To bring our flow full circle, nearly 1,000 people participated in our stewardship and outreach paddles with us in the waters of the Chicago-Calumet River system. And, volunteers participating in our Paddle and Plant program with the Shedd Aquarium installed over 2,000 native plants along the Little Calumet River and the North Shore Channel, which will multiply over time creating more high-quality habitat.

We are raising our cup of kindness to you for all you have done with us this in 2023, and we cannot wait to work together again in 2024. From all of us at Friends – Happy New Year.