A man standing in a field holding a chicken.

Community Engagement|

College of Arts and Sciences

icon of a calendarMay 17, 2021

icon of a pencilBy Kelli Warshefski

Overcoming the Odds

OU alumnus finds his way after bleak academic start

two white arrows point down
white camera icon

Robert Hall

Jonathan Ivar Weyhrauch, CAS ’15, didn’t always have a clear path. But the once high school drop-out has developed a nonprofit organization, certificate training program, and is teaching at Oakland University … all while simultaneously pursuing a Ph.D.

“I usually do things the hard way,” Weyhrauch confesses. “This makes me a very nontraditional individual and led to me being kicked out of high school at 16 and traveling some less than positive paths.”

Weyhrauch eventually returned to alternative education and found he had a keen interest in the sciences. While spending a few years traveling the country with the Renaissance Festival, he worked and lived in underserved, diverse communities — an experience that ignited a passion to help others. “I learned about how to give yourself more freely,” Wehyrauch says. “It was an awesome community. I was amazed at how respectful everyone was of each other and yet how largely unconventional (they were).”

Weyhrauch would eventually find work as an engineer technician making thin-film solar cells with Unisolar (United Solar Ovanics), but the company began outsourcing the panel manufacturing portion of the plant, leading him on a new journey. “All eliminated workers would receive retraining and financial support during their training, so I chose to volunteer for a layoff in order to pursue higher education,” he says.

Weyhrauch came to Oakland University and followed his passion in the sciences, double majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry and environmental science with a concentration in resource management and environmental sustainability. His path became clear during Professor Fay Hansen’s permaculture class, when he realized that “this was what I am going to do with my life.”

However, Weyhrauch also knew that without real world experience, the job market would be bleak for an environmentalist. He accepted an offer for a scholarship and research assistantship from Wayne State University, continuing to build on his environmental interests in geology while independently studying mycology with some friends from OU.

“During this time, I was getting disheartened by how little all these fields interacted and how they were taught separately while so intimately intertwining,” Weyhrauch recalls. “So, I brainstormed until I thought of a way to repurpose vacant urban properties in a way that makes these complex environmental interactions intuitive and understandable.”

In 2016, Weyhrauch took these dreams and transformed them into Reroot Pontiac, a nonprofit organization that converts blighted properties in Pontiac to sustainable, environmental spaces used to introduce local communities to ecological systems. The organization owns 14 acres of land in Pontiac that have been repurposed for environmental education. But the Reroot network reaches beyond Pontiac, aiming to create a Sustainability Center that will house disadvantaged students from Oakland and Wayne State University for little to no cost. Students, in return, will work on projects — performing lab studies, installing systems and gaining valuable skills for the future.

“The Reroot Environmental network was created to identify and educate people around the metro Detroit region on environmental issues, science and the importance of the STEM field,” Wehyrauch explains. “We are teaching people parallels between the development of the ecological community and the social community by showing them cool stuff about the things they pass by everyday . People can understand the world better when they experience things firsthand and are able to get their hands dirty in the process.””

white camera icon

Robert Hall

“We have been involved in projects ranging from building stormwater bioinfiltration systems, to planting over 5,000 trees and native plants,” Weyhrauch continues. “Reroot Environmental is one of two certifying organizations in the state of Michigan for the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP). Partnering with the NGICP allows us to be involved in training local residents in installing and maintaining green infrastructure systems.”

Through Reroot Pontiac, Weyhrauch and a team of local partners research green stormwater infrastructure (GI), particularly the flow of microplastic into the environment.
The project is funded through a grant from the Great Lakes Protection Fund. The research is proving how bio infiltration cells and other GI can remove debris, especially plastics, that enter the stormwater system. Through plastic debris collections and the use of a newly developed sensor, Weyhrauch’s team can quantify the plastics removed from the system, while also detecting the types and concentrations of microplastics entering the water system. “Overcoming barriers to GI implementation requires ongoing data collection to prove that proper training eliminates the uncertainty of maintenance and functionality,” says Weyhrauch.

A sign that reads "Reroot Pontiac"

Reroot Pontiac is located at 76 Henderson Street in Pontiac

People standing outside around big wooden spools.

Among the number of Reroot-owned lots throughout Pontiac, is a Diversity Garden, containing tables with painted flags and used as an outdoor meeting area.

A man holding a pitchfork standing outside of a mobile home.

One of the Reroot-owned lots in Pontiac is designated to the dozen or so chickens that provide fresh eggs to locals, with an old trailer that was repurposed as a chicken coop.

A group of people outside, cheering.

The majority of Reroot Pontiac's volunteers and interns are Oakland University students and alumni. This includes Calvin Goldsmith, chemistry student; Destiny Stock, biology student; Tom Mitchell, CAS '17, environmental science alumnus; Reed Kaiser, CAS '18, environmental science alumnus; Charles French, SECS '15, information technology major; Michelle Kaljaj, marketing student; Maria Kaljaj, CAS '20, biology alumnus; and Randall Yee, CAS '19, biology alumnus

A group of people standing outside.

Weyhrauch shows volunteers the newly planted willow grove - a circle of willow trees that will grow and weave together.

A man walking with people to his left working.

Weyhrauch shows student interns and fellow workers how to install framing for a hoop house.

A man standing next to a tree.

Reroot owns acres of land around Pontiac for community gardening, environmental teaching opportunities, outdoor meeting areas and more.

A cinderblock outline of a building with other building materials in the background.

Outside the Reroot Pontiac house, Weyhrauch and his Reroot team are in the process of building a pond and patio area for community gatherings.

But Weyhrauch didn’t stop there. In order to reach a wider region and make a greater impact, Weyhrauch also created Reroot Environmental, a National Green Infrastructure Certification training organization. The program aims to show community members “cool things” to grow interest in economic advancement and environmental advocacy. Weyhrauch is currently in a Ph.D. program at Wayne State University studying civil and environmental engineering. In his spare time, he teaches chemistry and environmental science at Oakland University.

Through persistence, perseverance and trusting his journey, Weyhrauch found his path. “The harder something is to do, the more important it is,” he says. “People shouldn’t shy away from something because it’s hard or complicated. Creating these programs and projects wasn’t easy, but they have the potential to save the world in a real way — educating people about climate and biodiversity.”

Learn more about sustainability and the sciences.

Share this story