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Vermont LEAF Program

Samantha Torres prepares to take on the day's task, bridging a stream in the trail at High Pond.

ESSAY
Caretakers of the Future
by Kristin Kenlan

The visionaries that inspired the environmental movement are gone.  The generation that first embraced the principles of conservation and worked to preserve the wild places of the earth is aging and looking over its collective shoulder for reinforcements.  But who will be the caretakers of the future? 
 
The members of this next generation have a vast store of virtual experience, but many have grown up without the personal experiences in the natural world that were commonplace fifty years ago.  Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, describes a generation increasingly disconnected from the natural world – where the perimeters within which children are free to roam and explore have shrunk; where outdoor play is often within the context of structured sports; in which, as one fourth grader says, “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
 
At the same time, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that time in the natural world is important.  The Children’s Nature Institute reported that K-12 students participating in environmental education programs at school do better on standardized tests.  Children diagnosed with ADHD showed fewer symptoms after a 20-minute walk in the woods.  Improved reading skills have been linked to early experiences in the natural world.
 
But there is more at stake.  The benefits of time in nature extend beyond academic concerns to matters of the spirit, helping people of all ages to withstand stress and heal from injury.  Author Todd Wilkinson came across a study showing that “the more exposure people have to nature, the more likely they are to be empathetic, compassionate, non-narcissistic, non-material and generous in how they live their lives."  Not only does the world need protected places, it needs people to connect to them, to belong to them, and ultimately to advocate for them – and for themselves. 

Cultivating a Sense of Belonging
 
I talked about this concept of belonging to the land with Marie Vea-Fagnant, the Assistant Dean for Student Services at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.  In her words, “we all have a deep personal connection to the land, but it’s a connection we need to remember.” 
 
The Nature Conservancy is deeply committed to providing the experiences that will help us regain these feelings of belonging.  Since 1951, it has worked to preserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.  In Vermont alone, there is a Nature Conservancy site in every county of the state.  More than one hundred places the organization has conserved over the last 50 years are open to the public and waiting to be explored.  But the land, itself, is not enough.  The Conservancy knows that we also need to find and support the young people who will discover a commitment to the land, care for it, and protect it for those who will come next.
 
I think I know of two young people the world can count on.  Manuel Rivera and Flore Costume are incoming freshman in the Rubenstein School this fall.  They were recruited by the school, not only for their personal qualities and accomplishments, but also because they are both alumni of The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future) Program.  This program, now in its seventeenth year, has worked collaboratively with environmental high schools across the country to provide paid summer internships to students who then work on Nature Conservancy sites under the guidance of educator/mentors.  The mentors have the opportunity to share best practices and scientific resources.  Students gain real field experience, an increased awareness of educational and career opportunities, and exposure to others who share their interests.   This past summer LEAF interns worked on preserves in 22 states.  In Vermont, they concentrated on the removal of invasive species in the Southern Lake Champlain Valley, where European water chestnut clogs the shallow waters of lakes and streams and alters the native aquatic communities.
 
LEAF Profiles: Flore and Manuel

I met Flore last week.  She was on her way to crew practice and we chatted over tea.  Her mother brought her to the United States from Haiti when she was nine.  She’s a graduate of the High School for Environmental Studies in New York and, as she talked about her LEAF internship she had this to say:  “I like school, I like books.  This was a very different experience.  I finally understood how pesky it was.  At school I would read and watch videos.  Going out there and doing it was so awesome.  It showed me that I like the field.” 
 
“Out there” was work on the Delaware Bay Shore, including beach clean-up, trail maintenance, bird surveys, planting trees, removing invasive species, dragonfly surveys, and banding baby eagles. 
 
The LEAF program, “made me more self-aware.  I learned what kind of a person and leader I was.  It helped guide me in who I want to be.” She talked about gaining a different perspective and how, for some girls in her group, it was the first time they saw stars in the sky.
 
She confided that there had been another school besides UVM that she had been interested in.  What swayed her was the community that has provided support and connection all along the way, from her LEAF Program mentor with whom she is still in touch; to Brigitte Griswold, the program director of LEAF; to Marie Vea-Fagnant, and Emilie Riddle, assistant to the Dean of the Rubenstein School.  People making and “staying in contact was crucial.”
 
Manuel describes growing up in Delaware, “surrounded by nature all the time.  My brothers and I would go hiking and camping.  We loved running through the woods and finding new things we’d never seen before.  We would make our own little camping ground by scratch and learn to live off the resources that surrounded us.”  Now Manuel’s family lives in Brooklyn.  He says he didn’t care about the internship stipend.  “I wanted to go away to experience something away from all these buildings.”
 
He shared that he’s always wanted to be a cop.  Now he’s thinking about a career as a game warden, a job that will let him combine his love of nature and animals with his dream of being a cop.  “When I completed the internship and I got $1100 it was so awesome because I went out to do something I love and I got paid for it so it felt really good.” 
 
Marie explained the Rubenstein School’s interest in LEAF interns.  “The students come with a structured, field-based understanding of ecology” as well as a shared language based on experience.  Not only do they come to the program with a personal connection to the land formed through their work on Nature Conservancy sites, they come with a greater awareness of and interest in pursuing academic and career paths in “green” fields – fields like environmental consulting, renewable and alternative energy, environmental education, and parks and recreation.  
 
Where next?

A recent survey of LEAF internship alumni showed that more than 30% are pursuing environmental careers, a rate five times greater than the general student population.  Because they come from urban schools and are often members of an under-represented demographic at UVM, they help to create the diverse community that reflects the future. 
 
It strikes me that the principles of ecology apply.  Stable communities are strong and complex, with many interconnections.  It was the connections and support systems all along the way that moved Flore and Manuel from high school to LEAF internships to college.  As Manuel said, “I learned to bond with people I didn’t really know because in the end you become a team.”
 
The LEAF Program is helping to create leaders who will help the next generation – and the next – regain a sense of belonging to the land – and all that that entails. 

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