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Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) recently received a $1.1 million grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

The grant enables PCS—a collaboration of Calvin faculty, staff, students, and community members who are working to restore Michigan’s most contaminated watershed—to further their education, research, and on-the-ground restoration efforts.

This most recent MDEQ grant is the largest grant the group has received since PCS began their work in 2009. Getting to this point wasn’t easy, said Dave Warners, a member of the PCS leadership team and a biology professor at Calvin College.

“We submitted nine grant proposals for funding before the first one came through,” said Warners. “Our story is one of perseverance. We believed we needed to do something here.”

And so they did. Five years later, the group has received four grants totaling nearly $1.6 million. The new MDEQ grant will enable PCS to expand their restoration efforts to three new locations in the watershed.

“It’s going to take many years with this level of funding to make significant change happen,” said Warners. “We can’t fix this overnight. It’s going to take 10 to 20 years of hard work, a very concerted effort to restore Plaster Creek and change the way people think about their watershed.”

Both Warners and Gail Heffner, Calvin’s director of  community engagement, realize that it starts with awareness, with education—one of the three key focus areas for PCS. The group has a big audience to reach, with 25 percent of the population of Kent County residing in the 58-square mile watershed.

That includes the students attending Calvin College. Heffner says Calvin is a strong proponent of place-based education—preparing students to think about and care for people and places wherever they are.

“Everybody lives in a watershed, but many people don’t realize what a watershed is. This work promotes a better understanding about watersheds in general,” said Heffner.

“Students at Calvin go to school in the Plaster Creek watershed. They don’t all stay in West Michigan after they graduate, but we hope they leave impacted to think about the needs of the watershed where they go.

“It’s significant that Plaster Creek Stewards emerged out of a Christian college. For some time there has been criticism of the faith community for not becoming involved in environmental issues,” said Heffner.

Environmental groups think it is unique and exciting that a college is doing this work, she added. Leaders of PCS have been asked to speak at national conferences about working with the faith community and also about how to effectively engage colleges and universities in watershed restoration work.

“The quality of the water that drains a watershed tells a lot about how carefully people are living in that watershed,” said Warners. “Or how they are neglecting it,” added Heffner.

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