Igniting the Spark of Leadership

What was once a deep gutter sending debris-filled water down the street and into the river in Oregon’s Illinois Valley, is now a lovely bioswale. Of 75 or so proposed project ideas, participants of the second cohort of the RDI-led Illinois Valley Ford Institute Leadership Program narrowed down their options and chose to create a bioswale in front of Evergreen Elementary School in Cave Junction. A bioswale is a long, gently sloping, landscaped depression that collects and cleans storm water. The soil and plants in these swales can help to filter and clean water before it drains into sewers, groundwater, rivers, and streams.
The cohort chose the project because experience among cohort members included landscaping, gardening, and watershed management, so there was a role in the project for everyone, and they chose the location because the bioswale could be used by the elementary school as an outdoor classroom. The bioswale functions to filter and slow the seasonal rainwater run-off that drains from West River Street to the Illinois River, and it creates learning opportunities for school children and the public at large, adds beauty to the neighborhood, and inspires community pride.
The project was part of the second cohort of the Illinois Valley Ford Institute Leadership Program; a program that is based on the belief that vital rural communities develop from a broad base of knowledgeable, skilled, and motivated leaders. The cohort brought together participants from the rural communities of Cave Junction, O’Brien, and Selma. Says cohort 2 participant Dennis Strayer, “I had some initial misgivings being with people I did not know. However, once I got to know people better, I realized that I did not have all the answers to the problems of the world, I realized that we had a common goal - to help make our rural community a showcase for the positive things that we all can do once we sit down, talk to each other and work towards a common goal.”
“We knew that we wanted to push the educational aspect of our project. It’s a great hands-on learning environment,” said cohort member Lindsey Gillette. “Several teachers were very excited to have this living science project outside of their classroom. Much of our fundraising activities were directed at educating the public and the students about ‘what on Earth is a Bioswale.’” During the project’s planting phase, the cohort partnered elementary students with volunteers from the Garden Club so they could plant together. “Working with The SMILE club and the CJ garden club to plant the plants in the bioswale was a huge highlight for me. The children were so excited about the planting process, even in the pouring December and January rain. Together we made planting hundreds of plants light and fun work!” says cohort member Margaret Philhower.
John Gardiner, another cohort member, found benefits in working together. “The core group was a real pleasure to work with - getting to know our neighbors is certainly a real benefit of a Ford Institute Leadership Program project!” The cohort is considering creating another bioswale project, with the Friends of Evergreen Bioswale. There are many unattractive ditches in the area, all of which allow the rainwater runoff to make its way back to the Illinois River. With a little attention, these ditches could become a vibrant accessory to the area. The cohort found the bioswale project very “do-able,” partly because in rural places, it’s often easier to find volunteer labor than hefty donations, so they relied heavily on generous in-kind work.
“The moment you educate someone, be it an eight-year-old or an adult, a spark of understanding flashes in their eye when they hear that the water in these ditches travels directly to the river that they swim and fish in. They become invested and responsible. They realize that they have the power to do something to help our community. And if we are lucky, that spark is just the beginning to bigger and greater things,” reflects Lindsey Gillette.