Teens Gain Life Experience While Spending Time Working with Nature

Aug 1, 2013

LEAF interns with The Nature Conservancy's Western Massachusetts Stewardship Manager Angela Sirois-Pitel. From left to right: Deric Martinez, Angela Sirois-Pitel, Jimmy Nguyen, and John Santiago.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

The Nature Conservancy’s program to immerse urban teens in the environment is wrapping up in Western Massachusetts this week.

Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future, LEAF, exposes teens to the sometimes foreign world of nature. Angela Sirois-Pitel is the stewardship manager for TNC’s Western Massachusetts program, working hand in hand with the teens.  

“They’re city kids, they don’t get to play in the mud and the river that often," said Sirois-Pitel.

But it’s not all fun and games in the mud and muck. A majority of the work done by the LEAF interns involves invasive species control, stream monitoring, and even farm work. The journey for the three teens started four weeks ago in Martha’s Vineyard, when they left their families and friends in Boston. They spent two weeks working in the ocean-side environment at the Vineyard, before moving on to Sheffield. For Jimmy Nguyen, Deric Martinez, and John Santiago of Boston Green Academy, the experience meant a lot of firsts including being in the ocean at Martha's Vineyard and hiking in the mountains of western Massachusetts.

Their time in the Berkshires was spent climbing Mount Everett, seeing Bash Bish Falls, and being the “boots on the ground” force assessing areas where roads and bridges cross streams. They are scheduled to work with UMASS’s River and Stream Continuity Project to improve the crossings and minimize their impact on the movement of fish and other wildlife. Sirois-Pitel says the crossings have become a major environmental issue in the western part of the state after Superstorms Irene and Sandy.

The program is also meant to help teens develop life skills they’ll be able to use in the future by living and working with each other and a mentor.

“It’s a new experience living without your parents for a month," Nguyen said. "I didn’t know how to cook before this program, but now I think I’m a little more skilled.”

“It tells me that I need to do more around my house because doing laundry, cooking, washing dishes is not something I normally did," said Martinez.

Sirois-Pitel says for many of the interns, it’s their first time being on their own and having a job. Also, the isolation from the urban social setting is something they’re not used to.

“There's no cell phones, no internet, there’s a group phone they can use to call home," Sirois-Pitel said. "So they’re pretty immersed, they’re not spending time at night playing video games like I’m sure many of them would like to. It’s a total immersion.”

The program targets high school students entering their junior or senior years to give them real-world experience in many career fields including financing, administration, and philanthropy while working on a nature preserve and going on college visits.

The interns are wrapping up their time in the Berkshires and heading back to Boston this week. They expressed a wide range of reflection on their experiences of the past month.

“I liked learning how to cook, so I can support myself," Nguyen said. "No instant noodles at college… hopefully.”

“I definitely learned the little things we do in the city, can really affect nature in the bigger picture," said Martinez.

“Living with the other interns is probably the most difficult part because not everybody agrees on one thing so you got to learn how to agree as a team," said Santiago.

They also have mixed emotions about going home. Nguyen said he missed internet-access, Martinez said he missed his mom and Santiago is looking forward to one thing that's beating him back to Boston.

“The only thing that makes me want to go home is for the money," Santiago said. "So if I was getting the money here I wouldn’t want to go home.”

Sirois-Pitel says the interns' $1,000 payments are being sent to their homes.

The conservancy’s LEAF program started 19 years ago and now partners with 25 environmental high schools in predominantly urban areas to employ more than 100 students in 27 states just this year.