By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Over the past two weeks, what looks like a miniature forest has sprouted on one half of St. Margaret Mary School’s front yard.
The transformation on the school’s campus is part of an experiment called “Green for Good” aimed at reducing air pollution in the city. It is also a response to Pope Francis’ call, from his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” to “care for our common home,” said Wendy Sims, the school’s principal.
The “Green for Good” project is a collaboration between the University of Louisville (U of L), the City of Louisville’s office of sustainability and the local Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil.
Close to 60 deciduous trees and pines have been planted on the western half of the school’s front yard, which is located along the heavily trafficked corridor of Shelbyville Road across from the Oxmoor Mall.
The canopy of trees is meant to act as a filter for roadway air pollution seeping into the school building.
St. Margaret Mary was chosen to be a part of the experiment earlier this year because of its proximity to a busy main road and its large lawn, said Sims.
About 80 students and members of the school’s faculty and staff are also part of the study. Each has provided U of L medical personnel with samples of blood and urine for a baseline measurement of pollutants in their bodies.
The participants also answered questions about their overall health and received a Fitbit wireless device to measure their activity over the next couple of months.
Researchers conducting the experiment have also been monitoring the air quality at the school and will do so after all the trees have been planted.
Sims said the school community is excited about being a part of the project and that the students are “very interested” in what’s happening. The tree buffer may bring some relief from pollutants that aggravate allergies and asthma in students, Sims said. And the learning opportunities that accompany the project are a good by-product.
Both Sims and Father William Hammer, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Church, said this project has presented a new way for students to look at stewardship.
“Our mission is to teach them to use their gifts to serve others and this is a way to do that,” said Sims.
The lesson here, she said, is that “doing something small can make a difference in the lives of others.” She hopes the project will affirm the school’s mission of developing character and stewardship.
Father Hammer said the project is providing a lesson in the concept of “integral ecology,” which the Holy Father talks about in “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.” The lesson is one he hopes students will take with them well into the future, he said.
“Our Holy Father has been calling us all to an integral ecology,” said Father Hammer. “We have a gift of life, which is a gift from God. It’s integrated in with God’s whole plan of creation. Without the proper care of our environment, we’re not caring for each other.”
By the students observing and taking part in this project, “we’re planting seeds in them,” said Father Hammer. His hope, he explained, is that when they are adults who may own businesses that they’ll remember to factor “integral ecology” into their decision making.
Sims said she hopes the project will teach students that their actions are “not just about right here, right now. The connectedness matters. It’s about reaching out into the larger community and the world,” she said. “I hope that is what we are teaching students everyday.”
Eighth-grader Ella Johnson and seventh-grader Matthew Chou, two of the students who volunteered to provide samples for the study, said they wanted to take part, because they think the project is good for the community.
Chou said he thought it was a “smart idea” that would “help the community” and a “good way of getting more greenery” on the school’s campus. “I hope it will help with pollution and that the air will be more breathable.”
Johnson said, “I hope it’ll make our community a healthier place to live and that our school will be healthier, too.”
Better health is the project’s aim, according to Maria Koetter — director of the city’s office of sustainability, one of the agencies collaborating on the project.
“The goal is to be able to qualify the improvements to health that will be realized once a green buffer has been installed, as well as air quality improvements,” said Koetter, a member of Holy Spirit Church. “Any time we can plant more trees it’s a win.”
Koetter added that St. Margaret Mary School has embraced the project.
The planting of trees will continue into the first week of November. Researchers will collect data through close to the end of the year, Koetter said. All the data will be compiled by spring. Koetter said organizers hope to replicate this study across the city. To learn more about the “Green for Good” project, visit louisvilleky.gov/government/sustainability.