DUNNING — Across the street from a Target, nestled along Chicago's western border, sits an oasis of 23 acres of wetlands and woodlands slowly being restored by park advocates to its natural state.
Friends of the Parks, which has been working since 2007 to restore the Dunning Read Conservation Area, announced last week that Seattle-based REI — Recreational Equipment Inc. — had given another $15,000 to the effort, bringing the total contribution from the outdoors retailer to more than $50,000 over the last three years.
The latest grant will be used to build a shelter on the property near Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue, said Friends of the Parks Director of Volunteers Mary Eileen Sullivan.
"REI has been extremely generous," Sullivan said. "They have really allowed us to expand our programs in this special area."
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REI uses its grants to protect and improve the areas where its customers explore, play and exercise, said Theresa Saluf, outdoor programs manager in Chicago for REI, which has a store in Lincoln Park and three stores in the suburbs.
"It is a very natural area close to the city," Saluf said, calling the area a hidden gem.
Volunteers are working to rid the grassy land of invasive plant species while using it as an outdoor classroom, Sullivan said.
Open to the public from March to November, the site features a ¾-mile walking trail, a small rain garden and a plant nursery. The site is an ideal place to educate the public about the need for biodiversity, Sullivan said.
"We're trying to build a big prairie," Sullivan said.
Visitors to the passive park can see rare animals not often seen in the city, including prairie crayfish and garter snakes. Coyotes also frequent the grounds, and red-tailed hawks often search for prey there, according to the Friends of the Parks.
The conservation area was once part of the grounds of the Chicago-Read Mental Health Center.
REI plans to host several classes at the conservation area in the coming months, including introduction to hiking and mapping courses.
Service days sponsored by REI take place from 9 a.m. to noon on Thursdays from June to August, rain or shine.
On June 10, Arborist Sean Rock will host a walk in the woods and attendees can learn basic tree identification and tree-care techniques.
For more information about volunteering, email Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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