BALTIMORE — There may be very little open space in Baltimore, but that hasn’t stopped inner-city youth from experiencing a summer filled with nature by working in back and front country settings as well as in urban areas.
And, if they’re really fortunate, some young individuals may even make it to a national park, thanks to the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nonprofit that provides youth with service-learning and career training opportunities in conservation and environmental fields.
Alvi Seda, SCA’s recruiting coordinator for diversity initiatives in the southeast region, said the organization has focused on an age-old problem: relatively few minorities visit national parks and other public lands, and the majority of those who work in conservation fields are white individuals.
“The SCA is a great platform to come and develop skills, leadership opportunities and employment opportunities,” Seda said. “The inner-city isn’t really that connected with the outdoors, so it’s great to see the young people gain a new experience and I’ve personally seen that this has led to many doors opening up different paths.”
Seda said the SCA, which two years ago sent six Baltimore teens to work on restoring the wilderness character of Carson National Forest in New Mexico, has several successful initiatives in place.
The organization has developed a partnership with the National Park Service and the Career Discovery Intern Program. Those initiatives primarily target minority college students for training to work in conservation fields.
The initiatives also join forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place underrepresented college students in SCA internships on career pathways.
Additionally, SCA inner-city programs in places such as Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore will have 1,100 paid participants this summer with about 40 percent of those being minorities.
“I’ve worked quite a bit with kids in Baltimore and those groups of students are very involved in this,” Seda said. “There’s not a lot of public space in urban areas, so this gives students a chance to get connected with the outdoors and I’ve seen a lot of these students make real progress.”
Officials have said they’ve worked harder to introduce minority youth and others to the outdoors since the 2012 America’s Summit on the National Parks convened in Washington where advocates questioned who would be the next stewards of America’s parks, where about 279 million visit each year.
SCA officials are hoping that many of the youth from their program, including those from Baltimore, are the answer to that question. They are providing an experience many say they will always cherish.
“We’ve worked around bugs and insects that we’ve never seen before. We’ve also learned the tools that we will be using and the safety necessary when using the tools for this,” said Kwamel Couther, a Baltimore resident who was among those the SCA sent to New Mexico to help the national park there.
Couther and the rest of his team had never traveled as far, but they spent some of that time during the adventure building hiking trails, restoring campsites, and removing invasive plants. They also prepared their own meals over a campfire and received environmental lessons from the crew leaders among them.
“Working with the SCA gives me the opportunity to get more job experience, get to learn about the outside world, to know other people, make new friends and to make some money to take care of me and my family and so I can just have money to spend during the summer time,” Couther said.
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., SCA also will have nine Native Alaskan crews working this summer in Alaska and an all-Navajo crew working in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.
“There are usually 15 to 20 crews with eight to 10 members per crew,” Seda said. “For Baltimore, we’ll have four or five crews. The program is unique in the way that it’s structured and it has helped to put many young people to work.”