Green Team program introduces high schoolers to ecology, college life


Photo courtesy of Dave Warners

At a conference in D.C. in 2011 for watershed groups, talks about including high schoolers in watershed work inspired Plaster Creek Stewards Director Dave Warners. “I just was so impressed with what they were doing,” Warners said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what that might look like here in West Michigan.”

That thought became a program called the Green Team, which today offers two three-week sessions each summer. Six high school students attend each session. The students, who all live, go to school or attend church within the Plaster Creek watershed, are paid for their work to restore it.

The program combines theory and practice. Time spent learning in classrooms is balanced with tours of the Plaster Creek watershed, field trips to other watersheds, seed collection and learning on-the-job how to care for the Plaster Creek watershed better. 

“They’re learning a lot about the watershed, the environmental justice issues in the watershed, and some of the things they can do to address some of those issues,” Warners said. The hands-on portion of the program includes greenhouse work propagating native plants, tending Calvin’s tree nursery and getting out in the community to work on floodplain restoration, tree planting and curb-cut rain garden creation.


History and impact of the Green Team

Plaster Creek Stewards Program Director Deanna Geelhoed has been working with the Green Team from the beginning. She’s watched the program grow from its start as just a couple of high school students joining Calvin’s college student Plaster Creek team to its current form. “The Green Team has grown and grown and grown,” Geelhoed, who was one of the first Calvin student mentors for the program, said. This coming summer, the program will expand again, adding a third session in August.

The high schoolers’ learning doesn’t end at the end of the program. “They educate the people around them,” said Caleb Mathai, a Calvin pre-med student who spent last summer working as a program mentor. From their parents and siblings to church communities, the students come to be known for sharing what they learn about caring for the watershed. “That, for me, is the best part — them feeling like they learned something and telling other people about it,” Mathai said.


Beyond the Green Team

Many green team members go on not only to teach their friends and family what they’ve learned about the watershed, but also to continue working to restore the watershed by building their own rain gardens.

The Calvin students hired as mentors arrange many of the day-to-day details of the program schedule and curriculum. They also do their share of the dirty work. Their role, Geelhoed said, is to “set the tone of the environment … They’re there to be really supportive and invest really hard in the students so the students can gain confidence in themselves.”

They also give the high schoolers a glimpse into college life. “One of the hallmarks of our program is we really want to make it more likely that these high schoolers are going to attend college or university than if they didn’t do this program,” Warners said. To that end, mentors are encouraged to get the students talking about college and future plans. The program arranges for the high schoolers to spend time shadowing other STEM division student researchers, and the daily schedules intentionally incorporate time in Calvin’s classrooms and dining halls.

The Green Team program keeps in touch with the high schoolers who come through it, according to Warners. Several have gone on to attend Calvin, and at least one has even gone on to work with the Plaster Creek Stewards in college.