Wendy Liscow, Program Officer
One warm, crystal clear morning in August, I was lacing up my hiking boots with great anticipation. Not only was I going to get to leave my more formal foundation program officer uniform at home, but I was also going to a site visit at the South Mountain Reservation to meet the Student Conservation Association’s Newark-area service corps. I had been to visit the crews last summer at Newark’s Branch Brook Park and was blown away by the high school students’ enthusiasm and the skills and knowledge they had accumulated over seven busy weeks. This visit promised to be equally gratifying.
As I pulled into the Dog Park parking lot, I was welcomed by the Student Conservation Association’s Newark Project Director Renee Winslow who escorted me into the woods where 30 sweaty, dirt-covered teens eagerly greeted me. They immediately showed me the trail they had been restoring and regaled me with the adventures that went along with this arduous task. They had been moving huge rocks, digging ditches to divert rainwater, rerouting trails, cutting brush, and removing invasive plants. They had endured the heat, the rain, and the bugs to literally, and figuratively, arrive at the other end of the trail with a great sense of satisfaction. This experience was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (though in a few cases it was a thrice-in-a-lifetime opportunity, since several students were returning for the third summer) that changed their entire relationship to nature and the land. See for yourself:
We are not the only ones who have recognized the transformative power of this program. President Obama decided to visit the Student Conservation Association to commemorate the signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act on Earth Day. First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and former President Bill Clinton “dug in” to help plant trees along the Anacostia River in Kenilworth Park in Washington, D.C.
You can read a minute by minute account of the experience on the SCA blog. You can also hear and read a passionate poem written by one of the Newark crew members for the end of the summer celebration. It will give you a taste of the how these young people are transformed.
We believe the best experiential opportunities for young people need to be meaningful and then offer pathways and experiences that build on the initial exposure. Since 1957 SCA has been doing just that. They have engaged over 50,000 high school students in active conservation projects and provided ongoing alumni opportunities through their national program, internships, and Conservation Corp Project Leadership positions. SCA President Dale Penny got it right when he said “the best way to keep the ‘public’ in public lands is through ongoing, hands-on service and stewardship.”
I’m just glad I remembered to wear my boots, because I know President Obama and former President Clinton forgot theirs!