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Kilbourn Park Volunteers Receive Honor From Friends of the Parks

By Patty Wetli | February 8, 2013 8:53am

IRVING PARK — To look at the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse today, with its slate of innovative programming, booming plant sale and steady stream of visitors to its gardens, it's hard to imagine the structure was once considered ripe for demolition.

"In the 1980s and '90s, it was really underutilized," said Kirsten Akre, the Chicago Park District floriculturalist who manages the greenhouse.

Neighbors banded together to save the facility, which was built in 1928, and on Thursday, at the annual meeting of Friends of the Parks, Friends of Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse were honored for protecting, preserving and improving the greenhouse.

"They turned it around and got it to the point where it's an absolute treasured resource in that neighborhood," said Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks. "They serve as a role model for other groups that have underused facilities."

"We're ecstatic to be recognized," said Libby Reed, president of Friends of Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, whose interest in sustainability and the environment led her to the greenhouse in 2007.

"We've all been working really hard to build the profile of the greenhouse with the neighborhood and the Park District."

Originally constructed as a conservatory, the greenhouse once served as a source of plantings for the Park District, though that represents a short period in the building's history, according to Akre.

In 1996, the greenhouse reopened as an educational facility, offering gardening classes for children and adults, running a summer camp for kids and holding special events like the annual plant sale.

"The only way this has worked is that I have dedicated volunteers," said Akre, who came to Kilbourn Park, 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave., in 2006. "This greenhouse works because of the volunteers."

From raising funds for improvements to tending the park's gardens, members of Friends of Kilbourn Park aren't afraid to get their hands dirty.

Karen Oliver discovered this hidden gem four years ago when she tagged along with a friend for a gardening session.

"I didn't know about it. For the longest time, no one knew anything about it," said the Lincoln Park resident.

Her original involvement extended to pulling weeds. Now she's the treasurer of Friends of Kilbourn Park.

"I just fell in love with the place," said Oliver. "It's just been an enormous amount of fun" — her definition of fun extending to potting seeds in 90-degree heat.

Every year around this time, Friends of Kilbourn begins rallying its troops in anticipation of the park's massive spring plant sale.

"We grow 15,000 plants organically from seed," said Akre, listing heirloom varieties of tomatoes, peppers, onion and kale. "We work like mad people."

The goal of the plant sale, like all of the programming and events at Kilbourn, is to connect people, especially children, with the source of their food.

"You'll see little kids picking kale from the garden and eating it," said Oliver. "It doesn't all have to come from Jewel."

On Feb. 9, Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse will host Garden Buddies, 10 a.m. - noon. The event is recommended for children 2 to 8 years old and includes hands-on activities in the garden, greenhouse and fieldhouse. Cost is $5 per child.