With an educational system that has increasingly become focused on standardized testing, teaching children how to be engaged in protecting the planet often falls by the wayside. Sacred Keepers Sustainability Lab has stepped in to bridge the gap and help Chicago children learn about sustainability and social responsibility. Started by Toni Anderson in 2012, SKSL is a Bronzeville-based non-profit that grew out of Anderson’s desire to help children re-connect with nature and establish that connection as an important part of their development.
Anderson, who has a professional background in corporate advertising, began a new career as an environmental educator after a stress-induced illness led her to rethink her priorities. She says, "I have always been a tree-hugger. I grew up loving two things, nature and science." After writing environmental programs for other youth organizations, Anderson decided to found Sacred Keepers Sustainability Lab in order to ensure that environmental education could be made relevant to urban youth in a way that went beyond urban agriculture. SKSL was conceived as a physical space where children can learn about environmental best practices and sustainable lifestyles through experimentation, conversation, and workshops.
When asked about where traditional classroom education falls short in teaching children science and environmental concerns, Anderson is specific about exactly how our children are missing out. "Many schools still teach sciences with a rote memorization approach and with very little skill-building involved," she says. "The lack of emphasis on critical thinking, science theory, and experimentation dulls their curiosity over time." A goal of SKSL is to help children understand how science works in their everyday lives and environment.
Complementing the lab is the SKSL Community Garden, located on 48th and King Drive. Meant to serve as an extension of the lab, the garden is a place where children continue the experiments that were started in the lab, as well as get their hands dirty by composting, harvesting, and creating a habitat to attract Monarch butterflies. SKSL also provides a place for service learning hours, a requirement for many CPS high school students prior to graduation.
SKSL also has other programs under its umbrella, such as the SKY Council, a seven-month paid internship that provides older children with the opportunity to organize service learning projects and fundraising campaigns, as well as participate in STEM-focused classes. The “Arts in the Gardens” program promotes urban art and ecology, while allowing students to be engaged in their communities with visual arts as a catalyst for expression. SKSL also has summer day and overnight camps for children 7-13 years old, with activities like hiking, fishing, creative writing, and making eco-based art.
The future of SKSL possibly could involve a full-day education program. "Our goal is to expand with after-school programs and eventually become an independent school. With so many families opting to home school, we feel it's critical to have more alternative education options, and we're working to figure out how we can meet that need year round."
SKSL is looking for volunteers to help them continue their work. Visit the website to learn more about how you can help or donate.