Conservation Program Grows Youth Passion for Nature

Published: April 6, 2017

Several hundred young Milwaukeeans could get a job working in county parks this summer — and more. They could find themselves in "a crash course in living life."

That's how Quentien Tyra describes his experience during four summers in a program focused on grooming natural areas and educating young adults. Tyra, 19, says he got more than he ever planned on when he signed up to work on a conservation crew. He told WiG he can't imagine what he would be doing if not for participating in the program.

Tyra, who is African-American, was raised by a widowed father in the Avenues West neighborhood. He's a merit scholarship freshman in soil and land management at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, one of the top such programs in the country. He previously had no idea that such a field existed or that he would become "passionate about pursuing a career in environmental science."

The freshman spent his previous summers in a program run by the local chapter of the national Student Conservation Association. While that local SCA folded at the end of last summer, a similar initiative will continue through Milwaukee County's Department of Parks, Recreation & Culture. August M. Ball, community engagement and volunteer services coordinator, is revamping several parks department efforts, including the Summer Youth Employment Program funded through the City of Milwaukee's Earn & Learn initiative.

Ball was hired for the new position after eight years managing the SCA in Milwaukee. SCA engaged more than 1,000 Milwaukee teens in hands-on service to public lands, specifically for Milwaukee County Parks' trail system and natural areas. SCA decamped from Milwaukee due to funding shortages. Johnson Controls had been SCA's major local sponsor.

Work experience and professional development

Ball is working to re-create a version of the SCA program and expand its scope. The parks department will partner with Employ Milwaukee, Groundwork Milwaukee, Maximus and United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee to "increase land stewardship efforts, address unemployment and increase representation of Milwaukee's diverse community in service to our public green space," said Ball.

Adult participants will work May through August with the potential to stay on through the fall. They also will be introduced to potential employment opportunities within the parks department. Earn & Learn participants will work 20 hours weekly for eight weeks. Ball is still working out the funding details for what will be at least two or three hours of professional development training weekly.

Each teen and adult participant will engage in personal and professional development throughout the program, including résumé building, job interview practice, conflict management, green career exploration and effective communication. Tyra attests that such training, including extensive practice in public speaking, has made him confident when communicating before large groups — a skill he says did not come naturally. Participants will also receive 90 minutes of financial literacy each payday through the Make a Difference Foundation, which is a nonprofit that offers financial literacy education specifically for teens.

New summer opportunities

Several new opportunities will be instituted. The parks department has requested 225 Earn & Learn positions for Milwaukee young people from 15 to 22 years old through Employ Milwaukee. Ball said participants will be placed on various conservation crews. A "Green Crew" will do invasive-plant-species removal, tree planting and general grounds maintenance. A "Trails Crew" will perform trail maintenance and construction. Some young people will participate in Groundwork Milwaukee programming, turning vacant lots into urban gardens, while also participating in the SEED Initiative with Growing Power, an urban-agriculture enterprise, to plant orchards to help alleviate urban food deserts.

Additionally, about 50 adult participants will be hired through Maximus Inc., to work at county wading pools and maintain parks grounds.

All parks staff who will supervise summer youth workers "have dedicated time to completing basic training in diversity, equity and inclusion" as well as various youth development workshops. Ball said, "We want to make this work experience as intentional and impactful as possible for our young people and alleviate the strain on our existing understaffed front-line team."

More success stories

The 10-year run of the SCA program was a springboard to help prepare young people for higher learning and careers.

Serah Washington, 22, spent six years with the SCA program, two as an apprentice crew leader. She calls it an "absolutely amazing experience." It  also was a family affair, with her three brothers and sister all participating for multiple summers. Washington, an international business student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, credits the program for helping her and her siblings by giving them valuable work experience "beyond getting a paycheck. We got training in leadership, financial literacy, building camaraderie, and learning about how we work and how to best use our skills."

Although none in her family are pursuing "green jobs," Washington said they all learned about environmental issues and are engaged in recycling, composting and eating a healthy diet. The mixed-race family lives near Washington Park.

Fiethong Thao, 21, participated in summer trail-building crews for five years. After three years as a crew member, Thao served as an apprentice crew leader. Now he's working part-time for both Growing Power and River Revitalization Foundation while taking a "gap year" break from his studies in arboriculture and horticulture at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Ball sees engaging "traditionally under-represented" young people in conservation as a "chance to change Milwaukee's narrative. People would tell me that city kids and teens of color would have no interest working outdoors. Yet in my first summer the program doubled from 50 youth to 100 in a mere two weeks."

She said SCA's school-year program started because three teens wanted to finish a trail that they had started over the summer. "When the trail was finished and snow came, they still would arrive with friends every Saturday morning to remove invasive plants for the lofty pay of hot chocolate and community."

Programs address 'nature deficit disorder'

When Ball started working at a community center in the heart of the Berryland housing complex, she was shocked to learn none of her after-school youth participants had ever crossed the street to venture into Havenwoods National State Forest.

In response, she started leading intergenerational nature hikes, worked with other community centers on health initiatives, and developed public health and wellness programming with groups including Growing Power and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Ball told WiG that as she worked in public health and violence prevention, she started to see a trend. "Each path led to issues of nature deficit disorder and lack of safe public green space." The term "nature deficit disorder" was coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, in reference to a wide range of behavioral problems that result from people spending less time outdoors, especially during childhood.

Promoting a just world

August M. Ball, Milwaukee County Parks' community engagement and volunteer services coordinator, is revamping several summer work and development programs for youth. Originally from Madison and Racine, she moved as a child to the Philippines, where her step-grandparents had a corn and coconut farm. She and her family stayed for more than a decade. Ball "always looked for ways to promote a more just world." Working with AmeriCorps proved life-changing. She switched her major from political science with a minor in international studies to sociology and community education. After graduating in 2006 from University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Ball started her career designing service-learning curricula for AmeriCorps and then served two terms as a Youth Volunteer Corps team leader. She has also pursued certificates and graduate studies in youth work, community education and nonprofit management.

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