Noelle Allen doesn't mind a little hard work every now and then, but before Friday, the 16-year-old from Flossmoor had almost zero landscaping experience.
After spending her service day as part of this weekend's Jack and Jill of America Inc. leadership conference pulling weeds and mulching trails at Wheaton's Lincoln Marsh, she's afraid her parents may learn she's now an expert.
"My dad has me pull weeds at home, but that's about it," she said. "If he finds out I mulch, too, it's over. I'll be doing it at home next year."
Allen is one of roughly 500 black students attending the social and service organization's annual leadership conference at Wheaton College.
On Friday, the second day of the four-day conference themed "Building MY Brand, Living MY Life," participants focused on service work throughout the area.
Groups of between 40 and 50 students spread out to 10 locations to do gardening, painting, cleanup and other activities to help the community.
"It's a great way to build our own character by also helping build character in the community that has welcomed us," Allen said. "And I've already met so many new people from across the country."
Andrew Whitaker, 15, from Cincinnati, worked up a sweat cleaning up Lincoln Marsh.
"Our organization is about making a difference in our own community and other communities, so that's what were doing today," he said. "We put in some work, helped some folks out and we're all better for it today."
Some of the locations students visited Friday included St. James Farm in Warrenville, Mutual Ground in Aurora, Power Connection in Bolingbrook and the Victorian Cottage Museum and Sheldon Peck Homestead in Lombard,
"The kids came in and did some awesome landscaping and gardening work that our small staff hasn't been able to get to," said Nicole Louis, coordinator of the Sheldon Peck Homestead. "They came in and moved mulch, got rid of dead trees, cleared weeds and did a great job cleaning up our brick paver area. They truly made a difference."
Workshop topics when the conference resumes Saturday will range from finding the right college and creating a personal brand online to learning not to be afraid to stand up for your history.
Also on Saturday, high school seniors from the Midwest chapter will be recognized during a gala in Schaumburg.
Students from eight states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri, are attending the sold-out conference.
Jack and Jill was founded in 1938 by two Philadelphia mothers who wanted to provide recreational opportunities for their children. Over the years, it has grown to be an international organization focused on educational, cultural, civic, health and service programming for children.