FULLER PARK — Chatham native Jennifer Johnson has a message for fellow South Siders.
"You don't have to be afraid of the woods," she said. "There are beautiful plants and animals here in Chicago. And they're not just at the zoo."
Johnson is one of three outreach fellows for Wild Indigo, a group created this year that's working in conjunction with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Audubon-Chicago Region, Eden Place Nature Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to educate South Siders on the unique plants and animals of Chicago's forests, marshes and grasslands.
The organization was named after the plant, whose flowers are actually white, that can be found within city limits. The forest preserves, which are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, said Wild Indigo fellows help plan, implement and start outreach programs to bring in new audiences. The fellows, who work part time, also take routine training walks through preserves to become familiar with them.
"We try to make sure they see the coolest stuff when they're out there," said Judy Pollock, director of bird conservation with Audubon-Chicago Region.
Most people likely don't know that Chicago is home to a pair of nesting ospreys, an ultra-rare yellow-headed blackbird and even prickly pear cacti. Those all can be found at Powderhorn prairie on the city's Far Southeast Side.
Other animals such as garter snakes, great horned owls, Cooper's hawks, deer, and various frogs and mice can be discovered at Chicago's nearby Eggers Woods.
"Our mission is to reach out to the South Side urban community and encourage those residents to engage with nature conservation work and enjoy the forest preserves that are right in their backyard," said Englewood native and Portage Park resident Nita Marchant, also a Wild Indigo outreach fellow.
Marchant, who has a background in nonprofit management, including a master's degree in the discipline from Spertus Institute, never ventured into nature prior to her time with Wild Indigo.
But after accepting the position, Marchant has become hooked on the outdoors.
"When you're climbing the corporate ladder, you forget how to relax," she said. "Learning to appreciate the environment is more therapeutic for me. To be a part of something positive and take care of your community, it gives you a new sense of self appreciation."
Wednesday's duty was to plant 35 oak trees at Eden Place in Fuller Park, which has 3½ acres devoted to savannah, wetland and prairie environments.
Fuller Park resident Michael Howard, who founded and oversees Eden Place, said the center has been home to deer, coyotes, cranes, mallards and hawks.
"I have been waiting for this day for a long time," Howard said of the trees' arrival. "People around here are too close to the forest to see the trees. They're distracted by the stress of living urban life."
Marchant coordinated with RTW Vet Center in Washington Park, where homeless veterans can receive free meals, to have several representatives help plant the oaks.
Outreach fellow and Roseland resident Nambii Mangun, who had never seen a deer up close until this year, also has introduced Wild Indigo to children's groups like Pullman-based Little Smiles Big Dreams Kids Club.
Mangun said Wild Indigo's first monthly forest preserve tour had about only 10 participants, but that number has steadily grown to 50-plus.
"It has been totally exciting," Mangun said. "Nature is awesome. I'm never leaving it. I love it."