The woodlands around Chicago have been there for hundreds of years, long before the city was conceived. However, as the 20th century progressed invasive brush, garbage, and sales of preserved land turned them unrecognizable. In 1988, Friends of the Forest Preserves formed to stop further destruction before it was too late. The organization was kicked off by a group of citizens who felt it necessary to preserve the thousands of acres of green in Cook County, Chicago. What then started off as a small group of people has now blossomed into a fully-fledged community open to all who are interested in keeping Chicago as green as possible. Gloria Orozco was, and still is, one of those people. Having grown up in a tree-filled environment, she knows how important it is to have trees in our lives, which encouraged her to join the Friends in the first place. Mappy Hour got to chat with Gloria and find out more about her connection to FOTFP.
First off, can you introduce yourself? What kind of work do you do?
I’m Gloria Orozco, I’m an organizer for Friends of the Forest Preserves, and the kind of work that I do is recruitment for volunteers and creating a positive experience for all volunteers.
How did you first find connection to the outdoors?
I grew up in Mexico, and my yard was literally all trees. I loved climbing, and picking fruit, because there were fruit trees. Moving to Chicago was a big change, and once I was in high school, I was able to find the Forest Preserves. Being reintroduced to that nature really stuck with me and I knew that was what I wanted to be around for the rest of my life.
What is your favorite outdoor activity?
My favorite outdoor activity is basically hiking, and I really like going on walks. I really love Ted Stone Forest Preserve, it’s on the fringe road right by the I-55.
How did you first get involved with the Friends of the Forest Preserves?
When I was in high school, I joined a ‘green club,’ and they took us out to studentship workdays as well as hikes to local forest preserves including Ted Stone. Being exposed to that type of work really impacted me, and my mentor at the time mentioned that there was a summer internship available, where you could do that sort of work over the summer and get paid for it. So I decided to go for it and applied, and that internship was with Friends of the Forest Preserves and the Student Conservation Association. Once I did that, I continued coming back every summer, and was able to stay with FOTFP full time and moving forward I worked to land this position that I’m in now!
Tell us more about the Friends of the Forest Preserves!
Our mission is basically to unite people from the Forest Preserves of the county. It (FOTFP) was founded back in 1998, by a really small group of people who just wanted to protect the Forest Preserves, and it all started with trying to make sure that the land that was already owned by the Forest Preserves of the county was protected and not fall to some developer who might come along and want to create a parking lot or a mall.
So, they continued on and now it has grown. It’s a non-profit and grassroots organization, and they try to involve as many people as possible. The other aspect of it all is exposing new people to the Forest Preserves. I don’t think everyone knows that the Forest Preserves exist, and that they are so near Chicago. So it’s really important for the organization itself to have positions like mine that involve new volunteers, and going into different communities around the city to try and bring them out to the Forest Preserves, as well as providing employment for communities that don’t usually get reached out to. For instance, I work in the Calumet region, where there are many communities that have higher unemployment rates.
How is the organization working with local communities?
There’s a lot of planning that goes into it, and a really purposeful way of helping the communities. I think the first step is just connecting with the local organizations, and building a relationship with them, seeing which ways that we can be a resource to them and ways that we can all collaborate. Another step is hearing what the community needs, and it’s really difficult, because our focus is the Forest Preserves, so we’re trying really hard to make sure that we’re also caring about the communities themselves, and the people, and the struggles that they’re going through. In the Calumet region, especially, there are a lot of environmental justice issues.. there isn’t equity throughout the city of Chicago. A big part is partnering up with other organizations as well who have already built a relationship there and have seen how the people operate.
What’s the best part about working for FOTFP?
For me, the best part has been realizing all the thought and heart that goes behind the different approaches and the different grants we apply for, and always trying to grow and listen to the different employees, not just for people at the top. They don’t just talk amongst themselves and don’t hear out everyone else down the ladder. It’s really important for me to make that space for everyone to be able to speak up and say “this is not working,” “we should shift this,” and also thinking of ways we can all collaborate.
What is the biggest challenge behind it?
Definitely all of the other issues that the community I am working with is dealing with. We have had a really hard time recruiting volunteers; when you start exploring all the different aspects of their lives, you understand exactly why. It’s more difficult for recruiting than in a neighborhood that is middle-class, where there is job security, and there’s free time, more single people than there are families So I think the biggest challenge has definitely been that seeing all of the environmental justice issues that are happening there (in my community), the lack of jobs, the size of families. Realizing that people have to work two jobs sometimes to be able to keep up, so how am I going to go ask them to come and volunteer? That has been a big challenge, and something that we continue to try and understand and see in which way we can possibly be a resource to try and help those people.
What does your future look like in the world of outdoor activities, be it sports or conservation?
I think just continuing to expose myself to nature, my family, and enjoying time outside. There are different definitions of ‘outdoor activities’ for different people, and for me, it’s definitely about stress relief. My focus is on continuing in this field and helping the volunteers as well, bringing them out, because I think it’s important to be exposed to natural areas overall, so I hope to become a stronger advocate for the natural areas in the future.
Gloria joined the Chicago Mappy Hour Chapter’s Women in the Outdoors Panel in March 2020, watch the replay here: