On a recent sunny, ultra-crisp November afternoon, we took a garden walk in Woodlawn — and came away with some thoughts about making our communities better.
William Hill was our tour guide, leading us through the small outdoor botanical garden he created to bring beauty and invite green space to a neighborhood with far too little of both.
As we walk, Hill didn’t even glance at the neatly typed and laminated labels placed next to each plant. He studied botany in college, and ticks off the names of each flower, shrub and tree from memory.
“This is an Arizona weeping willow,” he told us, pointing to a slender evergreen.
“This is called ‘Divinely Blue,’ it’s from India, near the Himalayas“ he said, gesturing to another blue-tinged tree we’d guessed was a blue spruce.
Everything in this transformed space — the plants Hill proudly pointed out, a custom-built wooden trellis, several stone urns, an iron sculpture of a tree with a bird’s nest nestled in a branch, a walking path crafted of stones and mulch — ended up here thanks to hundreds of volunteer hours.
And all of it spearheaded by Hill, who surely could have spent his retirement years doing something less taxing than cleaning up vacant lots.
Folks like Hill, who volunteer countless hours to improve our neighborhoods, are at the heart of what makes this “Sweet Home Chicago.”
For Hill, it all started the day he decided he was tired of the “eyesore” lot, adjacent to the 63rd Street Metra station.
“It was basically like a garbage dump,” he told us. “So I said to myself, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’”
He turned to what he knows best — gardening — and began by starting to clear away the trash.
From there, things snowballed.
More volunteers showed up, from neighborhood schools, churches and community groups. Hill snared a grant from a nonprofit to design a botanical garden. The University of Chicago, striving to become more engaged with Woodlawn, donated money to purchase new topsoil, plants, rakes and other needed equipment. Metra, which actually owns the lot, paid for wooden fencing.
Volunteers often talk about the joy of giving back. So we asked Hill about that, and why he chose to spend his retirement volunteering.
“There’s a joy to seeing a smile on people’s faces when they see something beautiful,” he told us. “It’s also pride in your neighborhood, and a motivator for others to volunteer and contribute in some way. … Volunteering is inspiring. I think it uplifts others to care about where we all live, about our community.”
Last year, the principal of Hyde Park Academy asked Hill to take over that school’s long-neglected botanical garden. This would be a much bigger task. Not just transforming a corner lot, but a block-long tangle of overgrown weeds and trees.
But Hill, with the help of more volunteers and donations, has made another showcase, with garden beds, flowers, slate-and-gravel walking paths and a butterfly garden with plants specially chosen to attract monarch butterflies. There’s also an outdoor movie screen, where Hill plans to offer film showings for the neighborhood next summer.
Tens of thousands of Chicago-area residents go the extra mile, like Hill. According to statistics from the 2018 Volunteering in America report, from the Corporation for National and Community Service, nearly 2 million people in the Chicago area did volunteer work last year. They contributed 151.1 million hours of service worth an estimated $3.6 billion.
Nationally, volunteering is at an all-time high: More than 77 million Americans volunteered last year, and the 6.9 billion hours of work they put in was worth an estimated $167 billion.
For all the talk about America being politically divided, at our core, we should remember this:
We’re a country that cares about our neighbors and our communities. And every year, we put in the work to show it.
And for that, we give thanks.
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