Kids These Days

An Intertwine Feature | July 2014

How can today's youth become tomorrow's environmental stewards? Show them some green!

By Ramona DeNies, Twine Wire

For five weeks this summer, Lucy Aldisert is working harder than she ever has in her life.

“The first day was just hiking and clearing things from the path. By the next day we were moving rocks. I was pretty sore but I’m adjusting,” Lucy said.

Lucy, a 15-year-old student at Grant High School, has just scored her first real job. Starting in mid-June, she and eight other Portland-area teens joined a full-time work crew out on the Sandy Ridge Trail System: building berms, retaining walls, and jumps for the mountain bikers who ride these rugged singletracks at the foot of Mt. Hood.

Lucy’s employer (and early morning shuttle service) is Northwest Youth Corps (NYC), an Oregon-based nonprofit that since 1984 has employed over 17,000 teens in educational work projects across five states.

According to Tom Helmer, an NYC project manager, the program aims to empower youth through job skills, education, and plain hard work.

“People think teenagers are lazy. Our job is to break that stereotype so these kids feel they can go out there and make a change,” Helmer said.

“We’ve found that the outdoors is the most effective way of delivering those teamwork skills,”  he added. “Building a trail is a team effort. And, you can see the result right away.”

PAYOFF

Studies have shown that an early exposure to nature is its own reward: fostering a lifelong affinity for outdoor recreation, with all the associated physical health benefits, and promoting stronger social connections, mental acuity, and psychological wellness.

But for the teens that Helmer works with, there’s an additional motivation for getting outside: compensation. Thanks to “cost shares” with partners like the Bureau of Land Management, which operates the Sandy Ridge Trail System, and grants from programs like Metro Nature in Neighborhoods, NYC can pay each crew member an educational stipend of up to $1,500.

“We look at it as a jobs training program. Paying these kids for their hard work shows them that they can get a job doing this, that there’s a future there,” Helmer said.

The nonprofit isn’t the only organization within The Intertwine that gets teens outdoors by showing them some green.

While NYC offers a stipend, other programs pay an hourly wage, like Groundwork Portland’s Green Team and Metro’s Youth Ecology Corps -- a collaboration with Mount Hood Community College’s Project YESS, a program that serves GED-seeking youth from families at or under the federal poverty line.

Portland Parks & Recreation also runs summer work programs for teens. The park bureau’s Youth Conservation Crew engages field teams like the No Ivy League, Tree Crew and Trail Crew in citywide restoration projects, while the Teen Naturalist Team hires youth ages 14-18 to teach environmental science and lead activities for children in area schools and day camps.

“Basically we hook them with the money,” said Kelly Rosteck, who works with the bureau’s Environmental Education Teen Program.

“Some of these kids are motivated by knowing they’ll get a paid job. Then they decide they like the community. Some come back to work summers with us all the way through college.”

Ultimately, these jobs offer teens far more than a paycheck, Rosteck said. Because these summer positions are often a teen’s first professional work experience , the bureau’s youth programs -- like Northwest Youth Corps and others -- also emphasize job training, life skills, and career counseling.

To get a guaranteed job with the Youth Conservation Crew, Rosteck said students must first join the park bureau’s Greenspaces Restoration & Urban Naturalist Team, or GRUNT. This volunteer extracurricular program runs during the school year on Saturdays and some holidays, and entails training in subjects ranging from wildlife tracking to financial literacy.

“Anyone can apply, but the whole point of GRUNT is to have more diversity in our parks bureaus, diversity in all its forms: economic, racial, ethnic,” Rosteck said.

That’s why, Rosteck said, the GRUNT program primarily operates in Portland schools with high enrollment in federal free lunch programs.

Diversity is also why the nonprofit Groundwork Portland is seeking funding to expand its summertime programming, which targets kids from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged families, into restoration and maintenance work that can employ teens year-round.

“As an environmental justice organization, we note that there’s not a lot of diversity in the environmental movement. If you only offer kids volunteer opportunities, well, a lot of the young people we want to reach don’t have that kind of time,” said Solamon Ibe, coordinator of Groundwork Portland’s Green Team.

“There are issues around the lack of opportunities for kids, and the evils of idle hands. We give them something to do with a positive trajectory. We’re trying to mold future leaders,” Ibe said.

LEGACY

From her crew leader’s phone while on lunch break at Sandy Ridge, Lucy Aldisert shared that she was hesitant at first to sign up for the Northwest Youth Corps program.

“None of my friends are really interested in the outdoors. I thought it would be a good way to get job experience for later, but I was also nervous about being on a team with people I’d never met before, and all the manual labor,” Lucy said.

Now, after three weeks of moving rocks and building jumps, berms, and retaining walls for future riders, Lucy -- a street cyclist who’d never before seen a singletrack trail -- said she’s feeling strong, and even considering picking up mountain biking herself. She’s also thinking about the future.

“I have no idea what I want to do when I grow up, but this makes me think I want to do something outdoors,” Lucy said.

According to Helmer, reactions like Lucy’s are exactly what the Northwest Youth Corps is looking for.

“I had a similar experience when I was a young man. It changed my life. There aren’t a ton of jobs in the natural resources world, but those kids that do go on to find them have often been in programs like ours,” Helmer said.

Lucy’s gig with the Northwest Youth Corps ends in mid-July. That’s about the time when Groundwork Portland’s Green Team gets rolling. Meanwhile, the first cohort of Metro’s new Youth Ecology Corps started training back in April, and as of press time, Portland Parks & Recreation is still accepting applications for its 2014 Youth Conservation Crew.

But the range of outdoor work programs available to youth like Lucy simply wouldn’t be possible, Helmer notes, without strong public investment -- investment like that committed last spring with the passage of Measure 26-152. This five-year local options levy, approved in May 2013, allows Metro to expand funding for community grants and conservation education programs that target skill-building for underserved youth.

Such support helps Helmer, Rosteck and Ibe stay focused on what really matters: nurturing our next generation of leaders and land stewards.

“We’re all in this for the same reason,” Helmer said. “We teach teenagers about the outdoors, their place in the world, their community. We need to keep teaching them how to take advantage of these opportunities, so they can go on to do great things.”

Questions or comments about this Intertwine feature? Contact Writer & Editor Ramona DeNies.