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Slowik: Teens discover benefits of working summers in forest preserves

Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Daily Southtown
by Ted Slowik

Slowik: Teens discover benefits of working summers in forest preserves

A summer work program is helping south suburban teens gain valuable experience and will make visiting forest preserves more enjoyable for everyone.

Organizers launched the second year of the Forest Preserve Experience summer program Monday with an orientation at Wampum Lake Woods in Thornton.

Many of the 84 teens in the five-week work program are first-time participants. Some are returning after working the program’s inaugural year last summer.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Brittany White, 16, of South Holland.

Participants will spend the rest of June and most of July scouring woods and removing buckthorn, Japanese barberry and other invasive plant species. They’ll also pick up litter and perform other tasks.

“You have to watch out for poison ivy,” White said.

Education is a key component of the program. Adult supervisors share knowledge about biology, ecology and environmental science as the teens go about their work.

“I came back to see if I was really interested” in pursuing science education, said White, who is heading into her junior year at Thornwood High School.

Working in the preserves is no picnic. Teens learn to cope with summer heat as well as mosquitoes and other insects.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun,” said Tywan Mays, 16, of Country Club Hills.

Mays, who will be a junior at Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields, said he also participated in the program’s first year in 2017.

“I had never done anything like this until last year,” he said.

He learned about plants and ecosystems and enjoyed working outdoors.

“I like nature a lot,” he said.

Grants and private donations helped provide funds for the $250,000 program, said Holly Wallace, manager of educational programs and partnerships for the Housing Authority of Cook County.

The program is a partnership among HACC, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and Friends of the Forest Preserves, a nonprofit that supports the nearly 70,000 acres of forest preserves in Cook County. All 84 participants reside in HACC facilities, the agency said.

Invasive species threaten native wildlife and disrupt the food chain, said Alice Brandon, resource programs manager for the forest preserve district.

“The forest preserves contain more than 110 threatened species,” Brandon said. “(The summer work program participants are) making a big difference.”

Participants earn minimum wage — $8.25 an hour. They work five-hour days, or 25 hours per week. They can potentially earn slightly more than $1,000 by the end of the five-week program.

About 95 percent of participants completed the program last year, said Zach Taylor, conservation director for Friends of the Forest Preserves.

“Every day is an opportunity to do something they’ve never done before,” Taylor said.

The Forest Preserve Experience summer program is the first part-time job for many participants. They learn about responsibility and the need to show up on time and be ready to work.

The program is open to students ages 14 to 19 who benefit from public housing assistance and who are enrolled in or have just graduated from high school. Organizers help those under age 16 obtain required work permits from the Illinois Department of Labor.

Some participants also learn about leadership. Jihaad Dean, 20, of Riverdale, is one of 19 adult leaders supervising teens in the summer work program. He said he first gained experience about five years ago through another Friends of the Forest Preserves program, Conservation Corps.

“We had a manager and she always told us to stay consistent,” Dean told me.

Last summer as an assistant crew leader, Dean said he saw participants gain socialization skills and experience personal growth.

“It’s great to get them out of their shells,” he said.

Taylor said the application process included four essay questions and interviews with potential participants and their parents. Rules for participation include no cell phones or other mobile devices, and no swearing or profane language, he said.

Organizers provide food, water and safety equipment for participants to do their work.

“It’s a big lift to get 100 people out here all working together,” Taylor said.

I appreciate the amount of coordination and communication needed to offer the program. The program has nearly doubled this year to 84 participants from 48 last year and to 19 adults leaders from nine a year ago.

Last year, participants worked entirely at forest preserves in the south suburbs but this summer organizers have added a west suburban location — Possum Hollow Woods near LaGrange Park.

Forest Preserve Experience is similar to two other summer work programs coordinated by Friends of the Forest Preserves. Conservation Corps and Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps similarly offer paid positions, though for six weeks instead of five.

CCLC began in 2009 and employed 120 students and leaders last year, Friends of the Forest Preserves said on its website.

On Tuesday, I spoke by phone with Rich Monocchio, the housing authority’s executive director. He pointed out that another of the program’s many benefits is offering a structured program for young people who often live with violence in their communities.

“We’re giving kids a safe place to be in the summer and providing them with meaningful activities,” Monocchio said. “There’s so much violence in the city and the suburbs.”

Other than the risk of participants potentially dealing with sore bodies after a hard day’s work, mosquito bites or possibly poison ivy, I could not think of a downside to the program.

“We’re thrilled to partner with the forest preserves,” Monocchio said. “Sometimes (participants) need somebody to show they care about them.”

MORE COVERAGE: Slowik: Illinois bill to regulate workers' scheduling unreasonable »

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