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New Lenox woman named 2023 Volunteer of the Year

Two women pose with an award
Volunteer of the Year Sally Wieclaw (right), with Barbara Sherwood, the Forest Preserve’s restoration ecologist. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Sally Wieclaw of New Lenox was named Volunteer of the Year during the Forest Preserve District’s annual Volunteer Banquet in April. 

She has served as a steward at Messenger Woods Nature Preserve, a butterfly monitor at Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve, a plant monitor for the rare blue-eyed Mary and she takes part in small work groups that remove invasive vegetation from preserves. 

“Sally has been an amazing Prairie People Volunteer,” said Emily Kenny, the Forest Preserve’s volunteer coordinator. “She has earned a President's Service Award for the past 10 years in a row. As a steward, much of her time volunteering is on her own schedule, but she is willing to help be a plant expert during the native plant sales, assist at public habitat management events, and take part in prescribed burns.”

Hooked after day one

Wieclaw, who has been a Forest Preserve volunteer for 23 years, said she appreciates the recognition. 

“It’s a very humbling experience,” Wieclaw said of the award. “There are so many talented volunteers that put in many hours. I want to thank all of my mentors that have made this journey possible.” 

Wieclaw said she started volunteering in 2001 because she had a stressful desk job and needed physical and mental therapy. 

“I enjoy being outdoors and saw a brief description posted in the newspaper about a volunteer workday. I joined a workday on the Old Plank Road Trail, and I was hooked.”

Interacting with Forest Preserve staff and other volunteers makes the effort worthwhile, Wieclaw added. 

“Everyone is willing to teach and share knowledge, so I have learned so much about the natural areas around Will County. I am socially awkward, but I have always felt welcome and have developed some great lifetime friends.”

Passionate volunteer

Wieclaw has made a difference in the preserves because of the variety of tasks she has performed, said Judith Wallace, the Forest Preserve’s land management coordinator. 

“Sally is passionate about the work she does at her adopted preserve, Messenger Woods, and spends many hours helping to improve habitat at that site,” Wallace said. “She has helped rid the site of garlic mustard infestations, monitored rare plants such as blue-eyed-Mary, reported problem areas and mentored new volunteers.”

Barbara Sherwood, the Forest Preserve’s restoration ecologist, said Wieclaw’s dedication to butterfly monitoring also led to her receiving the award. Wieclaw would hike into the woods on 90-plus degree days to record butterfly species that are encountered. And Wieclaw also has extensive knowledge about plants, especially those that need extra help, Sherwood added.

“With her help, we have done a lot of work on protecting the small and uncommon populations of Michigan lily,” Sherwood said. “These plants need protection from the deer who feast on them and destroy the seeds and plants. Sally donated both time and materials to cage the lilies from deer browse.”

Performance awards

Additional volunteers who were recognized at the banquet with performance awards were:

•    Special Acts: John Fuqua, Plainfield
•    Outstanding Youth: Kadi Baker, Joliet
•    Outstanding Group: Transitional students at Joliet Township High School, Joliet
•    Outstanding Family: Ken and Kathryn Lewellen, Kankakee
•    Outstanding Senior: Rod Dabe, Country Club Hills
•    Distinguished Service: Andrew Preze, Bolingbrook 
•    Lifetime Achievement: Tom McCafferty, Crest Hill
•    Rookie of the Year: Michele Olson, Plainfield

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