Nearly 25 Cook County youth spent the summer learning how different career paths converge with nature and protecting the environment while shadowing Forest Preserves of Cook County employees during the 12-week paid summer internship program Youth Outdoor Ambassadors (YOA).
The program, launched in 2014, introduces a diverse group of youth ages 16 through 21 to all the Forest Preserves offers while employing the interns in various Forest Preserves departments, including law enforcement, programming and outreach, and permits. YOAs receive hands-on experience planning events, performing restoration work, and receiving mentorship from Forest Preserves staff.
“The Youth Outdoor Ambassador program teaches young people to be the next generation of advocates and stewards for the Forest Preserves. By working in the Preserves, youth come to understand the importance of preserving and protecting our natural resources and the impact it has on their lives and future generations,” explains Credell Walls, Forest Preserves community engagement analyst.
According to the YOA class of 2019, some of the challenges interns faced included learning how to interact with peers and effectively communicate within different group dynamics; public speaking; time management; and overcoming fears of working with animals, spending extended time outdoors, and heights.
Forest Preserve staff learn through the program, too: YOAs provide feedback on how to connect to teens. Lessons learned are showcased in a capstone Presentation of Learning demonstration, and each intern submits a written narrative about their experiences. The Forest Preserves uses the information presented by YOAs to help make decisions on recruiting more youth to interact with the Forest Preserves, plan new programs to engage more families, and more
Feedback from the YOAs about the program itself included suggestions to enable interns to conduct more public outreach, tasking interns with developing and facilitating more special events and programs, and continuing to task interns with similar responsibilities as Forest Preserves staff. The Class of 2020 will surely appreciate the thoughtful advice from this year’s graduates.