by Kristin Werner, County Lines Magazine
But Bob uses even the weather as a teachable moment. “I tell these kids, ‘If you can handle working outside in 95-degree heat and 100% humidity and stay focused on your project, you can do anything.’”
Bob is the director of Chester County Youth Programs with Trellis for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that creates transformative, real-world opportunities for youth who have faced social and economic disadvantages. Through the lens of sustainability, young people learn to make choices that foster health and well-being for themselves, their communities and the environment.
Since 2009, 4,500 kids have been part of Trellis’ programs—one of which is still in its infancy but is off to a great start. The Youth Environmental Stewardship (YES) program focuses on creating the next generation of land stewards.*
Supported in part by funds raised through Natural Lands’ Campaign for Humans and Nature, a small group of 13- to 17-year-olds work on conservation projects at two of Natural Lands preserves: Binky Lee and Bryn Coed.
Projects in the YES program include planting trees, trail maintenance and construction, invasive species removal, and beautification projects. The program emphasizes conservation and allows participants to explore possible career opportunities in the field.
Connecting people—especially young people—to the outdoors has become an increasingly essential part of Natural Lands’ work. “Studies have shown that spending time outdoors increases a child’s interest in and care for the environment,” says Oliver Bass, president of Natural Lands. “Part of our job is to cultivate the next generation of conservationists. Getting them outside for hands-on experiences has a far greater impact than simply teaching them about the importance of the natural world in a classroom.”
Every weekday morning during the six-week program, Bob drives his van around northern Chester County to pick up a dozen youth from Spring City and Phoenixville, then drives them to meet with Natural Lands Preserve Manager Darin Groff. They work for four hours on whatever tasks Bob and Darin have selected.
While the students benefit from real-world work experience, Natural Lands’ preserves feel the love as well. “Help from the YES kids means my staff can focus on other projects we might not get to otherwise. Our staff is working on a lean budget to manage over 600 acres on these two preserves alone—every bit of help counts,” says Gary Gimbert, regional director of preserve stewardship.
Participants must apply to the program, which offers a carrot of a $7.50-an-hour paycheck. But Bob says the kids also join YES to try something new, to have something to do for the summer, to meet people, or—and this really excites him—to learn more about environmental stewardship.
At face value, the YES program looks like many others that offer kids from underserved communities career training and hands-on work experience. But Bob makes each experience on the preserves a metaphor for the real world.
“At the heart of this program, we want to provide young people with a safe place to make mistakes. We provide tools and skills—accountability, time management, problem solving, punctuality, perseverance—that will translate to job success later on.”
Bob adds, “It changes the trajectory of their lives.”