How many teens does it take to plan and execute a 500 person event with canoeing, archery, art making and a zip line? Just six—if they are Youth Outdoor Ambassadors.
This new group of six teens, started with a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Management Program, aims to not only get teens outdoors, but to help them build the valuable skills they will need to succeed in the future.
The Forest Preserves of Cook County partnered with Fishin’ Buddies to launch the Youth Outdoor Ambassadors (or YOA) group this winter. “This is only the pilot program. It started in January and goes until the end of September,” said Credell Walls, YOA program director and community engagement specialist for the Forest Preserves. “We’ve always given money to these types of programs, but this is the first program of our own.”
Walls, along with program manager Pete Giyzn, have worked diligently to introduce the group to activities they wouldn’t have normally tried on their own. “They’ve participated in bird watching, hiking, canoeing, archery and horseback riding,” Walls explained. “But we’ve also done presentations that allow them to develop skills they can use for the rest of their lives.”
The YOA teens have sharpened their interpersonal and public speaking skills by soliciting feedback from preserve visitors, helping out at official Forest Preserves events and addressing other groups of teens. “They’ve talked to roughly 500 teens at different community events and camps held at local colleges and universities” Walls boasted.
The YOA initially met every Wednesday night and Saturday, but now meets up to five days a week to accommodate all the program’s activities and responsibilities. According to YOA teen Kelvin Boyd, each day presents a new learning opportunity. “One thing I’ve experienced in this program is actually learning how to work with the public,” he said. “I also learned there’s character in me that loves nature.”
They’ve also had the opportunity to rotate between different Forest Preserves departments to learn how they help carry out the agency’s mission. “I’ve gotten to know the different departments and what they do. Most I didn’t even know about,” said Boyd, who now hopes to work for the Forest Preserves in the future.
While each session brings new challenges, one of the hardest assignments of the summer has been planning for Teen Exploration Day. Still, the YOA teens (and their program manager) have high expectations for this Wednesday’s event at Powderhorn Lake in Burnham.
“There will be canoeing, archery, hiking and just about anything you can think of,” Walls said. “You can expect to see 500 to 600 young people enjoying the outdoors.” The entire program has exceeded Walls’ expectations, but he thinks Teen Exploration Day in particular will be a highlight, “it’s going to be epic!”
Before the program winds down this September, the YOA teens will host The Summit—an event where young people in other outdoor programs gather to share their opinions about being in nature. They will use that feedback, and their experiences over the course of the program, to create a report on teens and young people for the Forest Preserves. A culmination of everything the YOA teens have learned, the report will detail specific recommendations on the role of young people, programs that would interest them and processes to engage them.