MDOT youth program performs maintenance work in downtown Niles

Published 4:34 pm Monday, July 18, 2022

NILES — A local group of young people was hard at work beautifying downtown Niles Monday morning.

30 members of the Michigan Department of Transportation Youth Development and Mentoring Program – Southwest Michigan worked to de-weed and clean up the rain gardens located near the Main Street bridge in downtown Niles.

The rain gardens – built and maintained by MDOT – had become overrun with weeds in recent years and became an eyesore to community members.

Rain gardens are landscaping features designed to capture and infiltrate rainwater and stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces like driveways, rooftops, and parking lots.

The vegetation planted in a rain garden typically has roots that allow for water to move down into the soil, rather than pooling on the surface. They also help to absorb nutrients and pollutants as the water seeps into the soil. 

“They’re supposed to get all the toxins out and kind of help with the flow of runoff from the road and the sidewalk,” said MDOT Resource Supervisor Rachael Kluba. That was the intention when it was first built, so hopefully, we can come back to that.”

The mission of the MDOT Youth Development and Mentoring Program is to prepare a diverse workforce for the future by providing participants with opportunities to pursue higher education, personal growth, and exposure to transportation careers. 

“A lot of them are in college or en route to college,” said MDOT Youth Development and Mentoring Program Manager Don Marshall. “The high schoolers have a GPA of 3.1 or greater.”

The program provides mentoring activities and sessions to teach job and life skills, introduces college/university options, and presents local high school students and recent high school graduates with information about careers in civil engineering, road construction and maintenance, planning and other areas of transportation.

“Normally I would have 75 to 80 people but this year, I have 30,” Marshall said. “Typically, I’ll have 700 applicants because it is a competitive process to get this job. This year, I have a good core of 30 people that are dedicated.”

Kluba said she would take pictures of the project and send them to Lansing for a report. MDOT will return next year to de-weed the rain gardens again and plant new plants in the soil. She added that the River Essence Group would be willing to keep up with maintenance of the rain gardens in the meantime.

“I think (MDOT) put it in four or five years ago and for lack of a better word, it failed,” she said. “We’ll brainstorm to see what we can do to make it better this time and prevent it from becoming like this again.”