Forest Preserve Experience graduationOn a sunny morning in late July, a stream of bright orange T-shirts makes its way to the Wampum Lake Woods pavilion in Thornton, Ill. This is the day that more than 80 Chicago teens will celebrate the end of their summer of work in the Forest Preserve Experience Program.

Launched in 2016, the program is a partnership between the Forest Preserves of Cook County and the Housing Authority of Cook County.

This year, the Forest Preserve Foundation supported the program with two grants totaling $125,000. Young people whose families rely upon the services of the Housing Authority are recruited for paid internships doing conservation work in the Preserves.

For the majority of these 14 to 19 year olds from the South and West Sides of Cook County, this was their first job and their first paycheck. Deployed to their local Forest Preserve, they worked in teams under the direction of trained adult leaders and assistant crew leaders at Sauk Trail Woods, Jurgensen Woods, Possum Hollow Woods and Wampum Lake Woods.

The five-week program introduced the teens to conservation work. The teams contributed more than 5,500 hours of on-the-ground ecological restoration work through the management of invasive species, tree care, and litter pick-up. Participants also learned essential job skills such as deportment and punctuality, teamwork, problem solving and public speaking — life skills that transfer to future job opportunities.

During the program, the youth heard from a panel of conservation professionals who gave them a look at careers in the green industry. Nature-based education and recreational activities provided an introduction to new experiences and adventures at the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden.

They also discovered the wealth of activities available in the Preserves: canoeing, camping, hiking, archery. Participants learned what the Forest Preserves offer and how important the health and care of the Preserves are in their community and to quality of life.

The graduation ceremony was a celebration of many achievements and milestones.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle thanked the group for their work and enthusiasm.

General Superintendent of the Forest Preserves, Arnold Randall, echoed Preckwinkle's gratitude and encouraged the young women and men to maintain the friendships they made, to nurture the new connection they have with nature, and to invite family and friends to enjoy the Preserves.

Each of the six crews presented a performance piece—skit, rap, dance — giving the audience a look at their summer in the Preserves. Recurring themes reflected many firsts – new friends, early mornings and long hot days, wildlife sightings, spiders and mosquitoes, and personal growth.

Clearly, every participant gained more than just work experience. With newfound confidence and insights into a future with new and different opportunities, many look forward to working in the Preserves next summer.

Whether it was the petite girl who spoke of her unexpected transition from a "girly girl" to an "outdoorsy" crew member or the shy, lanky young man who spoke of learning more than he expected about nature and himself, it's clear the Forest Preserve Experience gave Chicago teenagers a life-changing summer to remember.

Clarmarie Keenan, who wrote this post, is the Forest Preserve Foundation Development Manager.

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