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Into the Wild

Growing the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders

The LEAF program is getting teenagers from Georgia outside and away from technology

Put down the iPhone.

Could you turn down a month-long, paid internship, helping protect a beautiful forest? But there’s a catch: you have to give up your computer. And TV. And iPod.

Now imagine you are a teenager. Today, kids 8-18 years old devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media in a typical day (more than 53 hours a week).*

“We can’t assume that kids today are chasing fireflies or playing in the snow,” said Brigitte Griswold, director of youth programs for The Nature Conservancy. “If we value clean air and water, parks and wild places for recreation and the many benefits we get from protecting our natural resources, we have to actively cultivate the next generation of people who will care for our world.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program tackles this challenge. For 20 years, the program has pulled kids from environmental high schools away from laptops and video games and sent them outside.

Peach LEAFs

Thanks to generous support from the Toyota USA Foundation, 24 students from Arabia Mountain High, an environmentally-focused public school in suburban DeKalb County, Georgia, were part of this year’s LEAF class.

Packing plenty of bug spray and sturdy boots, these lucky kids set off in July for a grand adventure:

  • Six young women went to Wyoming to help with invasive species removal, trail maintenance and more. Wyoming intern Keyarria Mack learned about invasive plants like thistle and houndstongue and their negative impact on threatened native species. "The Nature Conservancy has been an awesome experience for me," she says.
  • Delaware was the destination for six young women, where they are conducting water quality health assessments and learning about urban agriculture. “Before LEAF, I was a butterfly trapped in a little bubble waiting to be free," says Delaware intern Michaella Allen. "This program has made me more independent, confident, and have an even stronger love for nature.”
  • Six young women worked in Kentucky, experiencing the region's cave ecosystems and helping staff with restoration and research projects. "My favorite week of the internship was when we worked with Louisville Grows at the Shipping Port Memorial Garden," says Kentucky intern MeaLenea Homer. The students built a washing station for the produce that is grown in the garden. "It was tough work because we did everything by hand from moving the steel sinks, measuring the wood, analyzing building plans, and even lifting a roof with only one ladder and lots of short people!" says Homer. "I kind of felt like an engineer. Words can't even explain how good it felt to see the finished product and know that I helped build it."
  • Six young men stayed here in Georgia. They helped with trail maintenance at Moody Forest near Baxley and learned about oyster reef restoration on the Georgia coast. Georgia intern Keith Stozier was awestruck by all the new experiences he gained while working on Little St. Simons Island and elsewhere in the state. "Our first sighting of an animal was a diamondback rattlesnake," he says. "We saw bucks, baby coyotes, raccoons and armadillos. Another thing we saw was the stars. As we looked up we could see all these constellations we had never seen before in Atlanta because there is so much light pollution."
About the LEAF Program

The LEAF program is designed to engage urban youth in conservation activities now so that they will become leaders and stewards for our planet tomorrow. The program also supports teachers at partner environmental high schools by providing professional development.

Students apply and compete for this life-changing work and educational experience, which is designed to enhance classroom knowledge while exposing students to careers in the emerging green economy. Participating schools have been recognized by the Department of Education as schools that save energy, reduce costs and exemplify environmentally sustainable learning spaces and educational programs to boost academic achievement and community engagement.

The LEAF experience has influenced its alumni to go from the comfortable life of their city block to pursue projects in the Amazon rainforest, hike the world’s highest peaks and find careers in sustainable urban planning—all things that would never have been thought possible without their eye-opening internship with this program.

More than 34 percent of LEAF alumni go on to pursue professional paths in environmental fields, and more than 50 percent go on to volunteer for environmental causes in their communities.

This comprehensive environmental leadership program for teenagers and their educators now serves approximately 25 environmental high schools in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut and Georgia.

Learn more about the students that LEAF serves, the Toyota USA Foundation—the program’s lead supporter—and this unique partnership model. 

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