ALBANY PARK — Building a rain garden sounds simple — just add water.
In practice, those who turned out in late October to help the Albany Park Community Center (APCC) beautify its lackluster lawn discovered that the process is far more complex and labor intensive. There would be digging involved. And then more digging.
Wielding a shovel like a pro, Bill Eyring, senior engineer with the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), directed a troop of volunteers as they carved pathways and areas for plantings into the front yard of APCC's site at 5101 N. Kimball Ave.
Over the course of two weekends, dozens of people tore up sod, hauled dirt, spread mulch and installed hundreds of plants. Emma Carollo, APCC's volunteer coordinator, marshaled a force that ranged from Danica Samson, an eighth-grader at Beaubien Elementary, to Tony Kim, a career changer swapping sales for social justice studies at nearby Northeastern Illinois University.
Manolita Huber, an Albany Park resident enrolled in a computer course at APCC, was more than willing to contribute a little sweat equity.
"I love gardening and I'm using the center for free, so why not help," Huber said.
North Center resident Adam Broder, who expressed an interest in ecological projects and sustainable energy, was happy to pitch in as well. A tutor with the center's adult education program, Broder said, "I just like to contribute any way I can."
Backed by grant funding from the Prince Charitable Trusts, CNT, which promotes urban sustainability (they're the folks behind I-GO), has constructed approximately 50 rain gardens around the city to address flooding.
"We were looking for a place in Albany Park," hoping to find an "underutilized semi-public space we could work with the owner and community to make more useful and attractive," Eyring said.
CNT found a willing partner in APCC, and the entire project came together in just six weeks.
"This happened to fall in our laps, and I'm so grateful," said Dina Evans, senior director of children and youth programs for APCC.
The garden accomplishes two goals for APCC. On a practical level, the design creates a low spot in the ground that will draw water away from the building during heavy rains and provide a place for it to "park" while it soaks into the ground, Eyring said.
From the standpoint of the center's staff and clients, particularly the 240 children who participate in APCC's Head Start program, they now have a place to experience nature in a more park-like setting.
"Teachers don't want to take the soil and bugs inside," Evans said. "Instead of bringing things inside, we're going to come outside."
Alexia Paul, an Albany Park resident and landscape architect, created the plan for the garden with youngsters in mind, incorporating a mounded grassy ring as a seating area for outdoor lessons.
"You've got science, language, new words," said Evans, noting that the majority of APCC's young students are learning English.
Paul, who played an instrumental role in the design of Millennium Park's Lurie Garden, selected more than 20 varieties of native plants for the rain garden. Some were chosen to provide texture, height and color, some to withstand the trampling of little feet, and others for their ability to draw water away from the surface and into the soil below. All present educational opportunities.
"It will be really adventurous for [the kids]," she said.