Restoration efforts by Plaster Creek Stewards recognized on global scale

Climate+issues+arent+somewhere+elses+problem%3B+Grand+Rapids+own+Plaster+Creek+%28pictured%29+faces+pollution+and+other+environmental+problems.%0APhoto+Courtesy+Plaster+Creek+Stewards

Climate issues aren’t somewhere else’s problem; Grand Rapids’ own Plaster Creek (pictured) faces pollution and other environmental problems. Photo Courtesy Plaster Creek Stewards

The Calvin College-based group Plaster Creek Stewards received global recognition and a top award last week at a conference in Okayama, Japan. At the Global Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, Plaster Creek Stewards was given an Outstanding Flagship Project award for “linking education and research initiatives with opportunities for residents to take restorative actions.”

The United Nations University (UNU), which is the academic, educational and research-focused branch of the United Nations (UN), hosted the conference and received 31 projects nominated from different Regional Centres for Expertise (RCEs) around the world.  After review, projects were awarded either honorable mention, acknowledged project, or outstanding flagship project.

“I was thrilled that the Grand Rapids RCE and Plaster Creek Stewards got the top recognition,” said Calvin College director of community engagement Gail Heffner.

As a leader of Plaster Creek Stewards, Hefner represented both the group and the Grand Rapids RCE at the conference in Japan.

In 2005, the UN declared the next 10 years the decade on “education for sustainable development” in an effort to mobilize the educational resources of the world and create a more sustainable future.  Education alone cannot achieve a more sustainable future; however, without education and learning for sustainable development, we will not be able to reach that goal.

One outgrowth of the decade has been the development of RCEs. In order to become designated an RCE on education for sustainable development, a city or region must apply to the UNU and undergo a rigorous selection process.

Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell and members of the Grand Rapids Community Sustainability Partnership completed the application and the city received the RCE designation in 2007. Currently, Grand Rapids is one of four RCEs in the United States and is connected to 129 RCEs worldwide in Africa, Europe, South America and Asia — all focusing on education for sustainable development.

Since its inception in 2009, Plaster Creek Stewards has been educating the community about the realities of the heavily-polluted Plaster Creek watershed through workshops, meetings and on-the-ground restoration events. Noticing their significant work toward engaging both the secular and faith-based community, Mayor Heartwell invited the Plaster Creek Stewards to attend the RCE conference in Japan and represent the Grand Rapids RCE there. With confidence in their project, Heartwell encouraged Heffner to nominate Plaster Creek Stewards for the award, which they later accepted with humility.

“You do what you think is good work and you don’t do it for recognition — but when other people do see it as good work and you get recognized, it’s really encouraging,” said Dave Warners, a professor of biology at Calvin and co-leader of Plaster Creek Stewards.

“Maybe the most encouraging thing that’s come from all of this,” continued Warners, “is that the mayor thinks highly enough of us that he would send one of us to Japan to represent Grand Rapids on this international stage. Knowing that we have that kind of support from our mayor is definitely encouraging.”

Although receiving an award of this magnitude is an honor might for Plaster Creek Stewards, the award doesn’t mean the organization’s work toward cleaning up the creek is finished.  According to Heffner, the battle to restore the Plaster Creek watershed is still far from over.

“We know the [Plaster Creek] watershed has been getting worse for over 100 years, and it will probably take 20 to 30 years of hard work before we start to see it be healed,” stated Heffner. “[Plaster Creek] is still the most contaminated waterway in West Michigan.”

According to the Plaster Creek Stewards, due to ever-increasing spaces of impervious surfaces and the lack of buffer zones and natural habitats, storm water run-off continues to wreak havoc by washing trash, chemicals, bacteria, and other pollutants quickly into the creek. The creek is still deemed “untouchable” even when it comes to partial human body contact.

“Let’s take the award for what it is, but we still need to roll up our sleeves, get out there and do the work that needs to be done,” said Warners. “What will really be exciting is when Plaster Creek Stewards receives an award because the stream has been determined safe for kids to play in again.”