Hooked On Habitat Conservation

In the first four months of the 2014-15 school year, high school students in Kent, Wash., have given more than 1,000 hours of community service by getting cold, dirty, wet, and scratched. And they keep coming back for more.

The students are digging out blackberry roots and other invasive weeds, replanting with native vegetation, and doing additional restoration work for the Green Kent Partnership. The long-term goal is to restore more than 1,300 acres of forested parks and other natural areas back to healthy, functioning habitats. Key partners include public and private agencies—and community members.

Kent’s four high schools and three academies each set their own number of community-service credits required for graduation, and additional credits are earned by honor society and service club participants. Students choose where they want to volunteer, and the city’s parks department competes with any number of non-profit and faith-based organizations for the students’ services. What’s remarkable is that so many of these teens return to Green Kent events, even after they’ve met the requirements. They see they’re part of something bigger than a one-time experience.

Now in its fourth year of field work, the partnership has become another innovative way the department can stretch resources and involve the community. Parks Director Jeff Watling comments, “It’s a win-win-win for the students, the city, and our natural resources.”

To jump-start the school year, the district’s environmental-services supervisor presented a challenge to science teachers, advisors, and guidance counselors to see which high school would have the most volunteers at Green Kent Day, the city’s biggest 2014 restoration event.

By the time students started their holiday break, many had become conservation veterans, including Kentridge High School’s Brielle Canares, who participated in the event and at six other work parties in less than four months.

Building Skills And Community

With 137 languages spoken by students in the school district, many of the young volunteers speak limited English. A number have never used hand tools or worked in the soil prior to coming to a park. But they revel in receiving before-and-after photos from parks staff following each event, showing what can be accomplished in just three hours. (And, of course, they take selfies throughout the morning!)

The non-profit Coalition of Refugees from Burma (CRB), in partnership with Kent-Meridian High School, runs a five-week, academic-enrichment summer program for English Language Learner students. For the past two years, refugee and immigrant students from seven countries, along with CRB interpreters, have teamed up with park staff members for an event. Their efforts help improve the fragile ecosystem at a historic landmark park that includes a salmon-bearing stream. The students receive two hours of community service and have an opportunity to examine the invasive species they learn about first-hand in CRB’s program.

“Even though many of these students live just up the hill from the park, most have never been to Earthworks before,” says the coalition’s Youth Program Manager Siobhan Whalen. “Working with Green Kent is a great way for students to give back and get involved in their new communities, while engaging in a hands-on a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] educational opportunity.” CRB is planning to bring students back to the park for an early spring event in addition to its annual summer work party.

Discovering What “Stewarding” Means

The Key Club from one high school routinely has 25-30 members at these events. Each year, a member serves as point person, announcing upcoming opportunities at meetings, and registering the group online.

One might think that counting on 25 high school kids to wake up on a rainy Saturday morning and volunteer would be risky, so park staff initially questioned the number. Not anymore. The volunteer coordinator has learned these teens are not only dependable but really enjoy working together—and working hard—in their city’s parks.

Two of the high schools also have partnership-support stewards, students who receive training on how to plan and run restoration work parties at various sites. At Kent-Meridian High, a National Honor Society officer each year organizes at least four Saturday events at the park adjacent to the school. This year, that student is 16-year-old NHS president Danielle Matusalem. The teens, with oversight by a park staff member, remove invasive Himalayan blackberries and replant with native plants.

Their work is building on what Kent-Meridian environmental science teachers (and Green Kent stewards) Renée Poitras and Annette Lin are doing with their classes at the same park. Poitras notes, “Having students work outside really helps them understand how their actions impact the local ecosystem. It also provides them with a positive experience as they get to see ‘their’ plot improve over time.”

Service--A Part Of Who They Are

Since first taking office in 2005, Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke has watched the city’s population grow from 86,000 to over 120,000, making it the sixth-largest city in Washington. Cooke greets volunteers at every major event and always asks for a shout-out from each school. She notes with pride, “These kids really dig in.  When I look out at their faces, I see a reflection of how diverse Kent has become. That really touches me. Programs like this truly engage kids and help them feel part of their community.”

City council president Dana Ralph agrees. A park volunteer herself, she has noticed an increase in youth participation since the partnership began in 2011. If the mayor has a scheduling conflict, she frequently steps in to welcome groups and works alongside them when she can. After an annual fall event held at one popular park, she noted, “Something I thought about as I was standing at Clark Lake was the community connection these kinds of projects make.”

“I know the impact it has had on my own kids,” Ralph continued. “When they were in elementary school, they participated in the tree-growing program. Several years in a row we took those trees to Clark Lake, and the kids planted them. We have now been back many times to check on ‘their trees.’ I am so excited to watch as these kids grow up because service is a part of who they are. They will do great things in their communities because it is what they know.”

One high school junior actually took the time to write a thank-you note to the Green Kent steward and city staff member after a work party. In part it read, “When the cleanup was over, I was actually a little upset that we had to leave. Helping the park look a little nicer and function better as a proper habitat for the wildlife within it just felt kind of like a thank-you note towards its existence.”

Who could ask for more?

Victoria Andrews is the Special Programs Coordinator for the Kent Parks, Recreation & Community Services in Washington. Reach her at (253) 856-5113 or VAndrews@kentwa.gov.