Naperville BLAST program to foster young environmentalists, connect generations

Seeds of Hope is an initiative to provide free access to native seeds throughout the suburbs. Designed by a group of Oswego East High School students, the project is one of several that will be presented at Naperville Environment and Sustainability Task Force's inaugural BLAST competition this April. Jensen Coonradt

Driven by a love of walking nature trails and learning about the far-reaching ecological benefits of native plants, Oswego East High School senior Jensen Coonradt is hoping to spread that joy by creating free native seed libraries.

Seeds of Hope, an environmental initiative founded by Coonradt and fellow student Aarin Bothra, represents seven seed collections and counting that the students have placed in schools and libraries throughout the Oswego area. The project came to fruition last year as a way for the students to spread the benefits of native prairie plants.

“Illinois is the Prairie State … we have a lot of different prairie plants with long root systems that help water filter into the ground,” Coonradt said. “Unfortunately, we destroyed many of these native plants that are needed to keep our environments from flooding and to help support native pollinators and other species. What I’m trying to do is place these native plants back into the community to help prevent flooding, improve water quality, and help these local pollinators.”

Coonradt is among nearly 60 high school students participating in a newly created environmental project competition hosted by the Naperville Environment and Sustainability Task Force. BLAST, which stands for Building Leadership Around Sustainable Transformation, pairs students with mentors to create projects that tackle pressing environmental issues.

With students currently working on polishing up their proposals, BLAST’s inaugural year will take off next month at a “Shark Tank”-style competition on April 11 at the DuPage Children’s Museum. The winners will receive up to $1,000 to put toward their projects or furthering their education.

“Working on climate solutions and addressing climate change, you hear a lot about how young people are sort of leading the way and they’re inspiring us,” said Cathy Clarkin, co-chair of the Naperville Environment and Sustainability Task Force. “Having this experience of being part of the solution will help them as they go on in life to think more sustainably and think about the impact of what they’re doing … whether they pursue environmental science or something completely different.”

Clarkin added mentorship is a key part of BLAST.

“Something that is for me a really strong value is this idea of bringing generations together to work together, because I think we have so much to learn from each other,” she said. “It’s really purposeful that we have this mentorship and we’re thinking about how we can all come together to create solutions.”

With seven seed libraries created and 8,340 seeds given out, Coonradt said the BLAST mentorship has helped the group of students competing on the Seeds of Hope team expand their knowledge of native plants and refine their seed libraries’ collections.

Coonradt added the group hopes to continue expanding the project and empowering people to create environmental change — one seed at a time.

“It’s really putting the power to make environmental change in the hands of people, since they can easily take these seeds and plant them outside and make a difference,” Coonradt said. “This way people can take the environmental action on their own time and hopefully become lifelong environmental change makers.”

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

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