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Conservation Corps Educates, Inspires Youth

a group of Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps members.

Every year youth and adults in Cook County are recruited to participate in Conservation Corps programs that provide paid, hands-on experiences throughout the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

The Conservation Corps offers participants technical skill development focusing on conservation skills and certifications to pursue a career in conservation. Projects range from removing invasive plant species, building trail boardwalks, tree mulching, and cleaning up river and lake shorelines. Participants also attend experiential learning activities including green career panels and demonstrations from Forest Preserve Wildlife and Fisheries Biologists.

Conservation Corps programs can be an inspiring experience, helping participants meet new people, gain technical, leadership and public speaking skills, give back to their community, and introducing them to a wide range of careers available in the conservation field. Youth can begin participating in Conservation Corps programming starting at age 15. The goal is to retain participants and advance them on to other Conservation Corps programs. Continue reading below to learn about two Conservation Corps crew members, Lucia Botello and Barrie Chileen, who began participating in the programs in high school and moved up to hold leadership positions.

When did you first become involved with Conservation Corps?

Lucia Botello: The summer of 2009 when Friends of the Forest Preserves launched the first

summer program.

Barrie Chileen: I first became involved with Conservation Corps after my senior year of high school.

Why did you become involved with Conservation Corps?

LB: I remember one day going into my high school library and seeing the flyers for the program on the desk. I thought to myself it wouldn’t hurt to apply for this job. It seemed kind of cool at the time. After one summer I was hooked and have stayed with it as much as I can ever since.

BC: I heard about the program from my AP environmental studies teacher and was interested in studying environmental studies for my undergraduate degree. I thought it would be a great introduction to conservation work.

Prior to Conservation Corps, what was your experience with nature?

LB: I live right by Eggers Grove and when I was younger, I remember wandering into the woods a few times during the summer. Of course it all looked a lot bigger and scarier back then. I would always play outside by either finding ways to amuse myself in my backyard or going to the park and riding my bike everywhere. I can even recall a few times during my first year in high school riding my bike to William Powers State Park to escape from the world and enjoy the view of the water from a nice spot.

BC: I spent a lot of time fishing and camping with my dad. A regular activity for us was to take trips to the Cook County forest preserves and take hikes and engage in the programming they offered. Nature has always been part of my life.

Why do you believe this type of work is important?

LB: We’re protecting and preserving the land for future generations to be able to use and enjoy, which is very important. Everyone needs a space to enjoy away from the city while they’re still in the city. Organizations like the Conservation Corps continue to bring youth and volunteers out to create awareness not only about the community they may live in, but about the area at large so it helps create a sense of care. We’re also helping our native species thrive by keeping the invasive ones out.

BC: I grew up going to the Cook County forest preserves and engaging in the activities they offer. I thought it was really important to give back to the preserves that have given me so much. Not many people realize how special the forest preserves are and how much work goes into maintaining them. Without conservation, the forest preserves wouldn’t exist.

Has this experience shaped your future goals?

LB: The experience has shaped my future goals. At first, all I ever wanted to be was either a teacher or a lawyer. Now having had the experiences that I’ve had, I realize I want to do more to help protect and preserve nature for future generations.

BC: Absolutely, I ended up getting a degree in environmental studies and geography, and will be pursuing a career in conservation. I am currently pursuing a masters in geography at Kansas State University.

What do you want to do career-wise?

LB: I went to DePaul University to become an elementary school teacher, which I currently am. I have a Kindergarten/1st grade class at the moment. After teaching, I decided I want to become a full-time steward at a forest preserve in Cook County. I now also want to be able to lead volunteer workdays and even implement an environmental component to a future business I eventually want to start.

BC: I want to be a restoration ecologist. A lot of my research has looked at how altering disturbance regimes impact plant communities, which relates to a lot of the work I did with the Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps.

What has been the most significant thing to happen during your time with Conservation Corps?

LB: This is a hard question to answer. I think overall the most significant thing to happen during my time with Conservation Corps is seeing the same faces over and over again despite adversity. I see these wonderful people volunteering their time and advocating for nature and it amazes me. I know people who get paid to work in the field and still volunteer endless hours outside of work hours. It’s people like that who have inspired me to want to do more, who have shown me how to care, to not give up even when it seems like you’re the only one who cares.

BC: I think the most significant thing to happen during my time with the Corps was having the opportunity to meet an incredible, diverse group of people from all over the Chicagoland area. I made some really meaningful friendships during my time with the Corps and I am thankful to have been able to meet so many different people.

What advice would you give to youth considering joining Conservation Corps?

LB: I would say try it, even if it’s for one summer and you may not really be interested in the work. It’s definitely an eye-opening and even life changing organization to be a part of. And even if you’re not a fan of the work in the long run, there are a lot of connections to be made whether they might be friendships or professional relationships. The opportunities are endless when you join something like the Conservation Corps.

BC: Even if you’re not remotely interested in conservation, this program offers a lot and it’s definitely worth joining. It’s a great first job and you have the incredible opportunity to learn and work in the Cook County Forest Preserves. It’s a great way to spend a summer, don’t be surprised if it seems to go by fast! You’ll never forget your crew either so make sure you keep those relationships alive, you’ll be surprised how close you get over six weeks!