Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future

For many of us, summertime is an opportunity to relax and recharge. Not for the Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) interns. This summer they’re hard at work, getting their hands dirty—literally and figuratively—by digging deep into conservation science and collaborating with students from across the country and even the globe.

“LEAF is a fantastic opportunity for urban youths to really experience nature first-hand and learn about what it means to be a good steward of the land,” said Karen Tharp, director of urban stewardship and engagement. “The fact that there’s an international element this year just adds to wealth of learning opportunities this internship provides.”

This year, LEAF interns from Illinois, New York, Connecticut and Ashikaga, Japan convened at the Conservancy’s Emiquon preserve in Lewiston, IL. Ashikaga is Springfield’s sister city in Japan; the Japanese students were able to travel to Illinois through a government grant that encourages international science experiences. Along with two LEAF students from the Chicago High School for Agriculture and four others from the Conservancy’s New York and Connecticut LEAF programs, the Ashikaga students participated in field work activities at Emiquon, including water sampling and toxicology studies, boat collection and cleaning, invasive species clearing, archaeological dig visits at Dickson Mound and much more. The students then took the results of their field work back to University of Illinois-Springfield to do lab work and analysis and prepare presentations on their findings.

Although the Ashikaga students were only at Emiquon for a few days, the LEAF interns will continue their work at Emiquon through the end of July. In addition to their science and restoration activities, LEAF interns live together and are responsible for collaboratively managing their household budget and chores. The use of cell phone and other electronics are limited during the internship to maximize the experience of being in nature.

“The great thing about this program is that it provides not only learning opportunities in terms of science and conservation, but the kinds of life skills students need to succeed in the future,” said Jason Beverlin, Illinois River program director. “And those of us who acts as mentors and program facilitators learn just as much from the students as they do from us.”

Now in its 20th year, the LEAF program provides paid summer internships for students in nature preserves across the nation and helped educators from environmental high schools share best practices and scientific resources during the academic year. The program has had a tremendous impact on urban youth—opening their eyes to career possibilities, building self-confidence, work skills and conservation literacy. Currently, the Conservancy’s LEAF program has placed 144 students in 27 states across the nation. Since it began in 1995, over 700 interns have participated.