If 1,000 other cities across the United States can be Cool Cities, why can't Oak Forest?
That's what Janine Perez had in mind when she formed the Oak Forest Green Steps Commission to promote a more eco-friendly way of life in town. Now Perez is steering toward a 2012 deadline for converting Oak Forest into a Cool City.
And what's a Cool City? As designated by the Sierra Club, Cool Cities cut their carbon footprint 7 percent below 1990 levels.
"For about a year I had found myself saying, 'I want to start a group that communicates eco-friendliness.' I wanted to get out the message to create change among the people of Oak Forest," Perez said. "I thought if major cities can make changes to be more eco-conscious, why can't we, a small town like Oak Forest. So I e-mailed every e-mail address I had for people in Oak Forest and asked if anyone was interested in spreading eco-awareness."
A fledgling commission formed in June 2010, the group has taken on projects with local schools, city government and even the Boy Scouts.
The Cool City designation is one of national importance. The Sierra Club, asking that cities re-evaluate their approach to daily living and doing business in a more eco-friendly way, works with volunteers, organizations, community members and businesses to help slow global warming.
Perez said Oak Forest Mayor Hank Kuspa encouraged her to host meetings at city hall. After just a few weeks, the city urged Green Steps to become an official commission for the city.
"We're not the green police," said Perez, the chairwoman of the commission. "We just want to show it's not hard to be green."
One easy step, Perez said, will drastically reduce carbon gases in Oak Forest and quickly place the city on the map as a Cool City: eliminating vehicle idling.
"We're currently working on a 'No-Idle Zone Policy' near railroad tracks," she said. "Everyone idles, including Public Works vehicles and school buses, so we just need to figure out a No-Idle Zone Policy that can be approved in Oak Forest."
Heaters in School Buses
Arbor Park School District 145 has done its part. The district recently applied for funding for heaters in its school buses, enabling drivers to stay warm without idling.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency approved more than $34,000 for the heaters.
"It will reduce idling time in the winter months, use less fuel, reduce emissions and keep buses warmer for students for less cost," said Pat Fournier, director of business operations for District 145, via e-mail.
Superintendent Allen Jebens said he was pleased with the grant.
"It's always good for the district to utilize other funds that save fuel and can be environmentally safe," he said.
Perez said that once a No-Idle Zone Policy is approved, the Green Steps Commission will be on the right track. Small changes can make a big difference, she stressed.
"Conserve water by turning water off when brushing your teeth, recycle and turn lights off when you're not in the room," she said. "Just going by the three R's can make a big difference — reduce, reuse and recycle."
Since its inception, the Green Steps Commission has reached out to the community. Now it's time to take the second step.
"We know knowledge is first and work is second," Perez said. "If we do the work for them, the business, municipality or school can get the job done once we go to them with a formulated plan to execute."
Green Steps broke up into three groups to inform Oak Forest residents, municipalities, schools and businesses on how to become eco-aware.
"Everyone we approached has been welcoming and on board with the plans," she said.
Green Steps is currently seeking volunteers who can research and develop plans to educate the three separate sectors. Applications are available through the city's website or through e-mail to Green Steps.
Success with Rain Barrels
Green Steps also is looking for Boy Scouts to learn about rain barrels and offer help to seniors, to earn the boys a patch. The barrels collect rainfall, which residents can then use for watering plants, gardens and lawns, as a substitute for a sprinkler or hose.
The barrels have been the most successful project Green Steps has taken on, Perez said.
"We're the most proud of this program," she said. "We sell them at cost and volunteer our time to deliver the barrels and do the paperwork. We've been selling them since the summer and continue to do so in November. People are still ordering them."
The commission recently opened up the program for Christmas purchases. The commission will ship rain barrels, both in-state and out of state, if residents would like to send barrels as gifts.