To become a Youth Environmental Steward, students must know everything from the big-picture to the minute details of the local environment. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s …
To become a Youth Environmental Steward, students must know everything from the big-picture to the minute details of the local environment. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s training happened in participants’ own backyards. Now, 16 new students are ready to serve as restoration crew leaders.
In normal years, the 10-month Youth Environmental Stewards (YES!) program would be kicked off by a week of outdoor science camp. This year, the Northwest Watershed Institute, which runs the program, redesigned it into eight weeks of outdoor studies called the YES! Base Camp. Students were able to explore their natural surroundings and learn about environmental stewardship while maintaining social distance.
“The motto of the program is: ‘Use your natural talents to help the natural world’,” said Jude Rubin, who started and coordinated the program. “That’s exactly what these kids were doing.”
The YES! Program provides an opportunity for kids who are interested in natural resources and the environment to learn about where they live, including the whole watershed from “headwaters to the bay” Rubin said. They also work with professionals in environmental conservation, restoration, and management.
“We wanted to flex to the current situation,” Rubin said. “I felt really strongly about helping kids get outside and stay connected with nature.”
Rubin was happy with the 16 students who joined the program, and surprised that the number was within the 14-to-18 person range that the program normally sees, given that there were only eight days of recruitment.
While the instruction was much more direct in the past, Rubin said this year required students to do more on their own.
The students began by mapping their “Home Base and Natural Range” and making agreements with their families about places and activities they and their families could agree were safe to go and do while following social distancing requirements.
Rubin said that being outside was “one healthy thing teens could still do” after most academic and extracurricular plans were canceled.
Participants spent an average of 80 hours outdoors over the course of the two-month program, with several students who reported being “outside all day” during their project weeks.
They joined together for an hour-long Zoom call twice a week and were able to discuss in small breakout groups online, facilitated by previous teen leaders.
Rubin consulted with the former YES! participants Callay Boire, Reece Kjeldgaard, Stella Jorgenson, and Haley Moore for input on what they wanted to study and how to keep students engaged, and she credits them with much of this year’s success.
After completing it as a freshman from Port Townsend High School in 2018, Jorgensen was contacted by Rubin this year to return in a more organizational role.
“I had no idea how much work goes into putting something together like that,” Jorgensen said.
“The main goal of the camp is to inspire teenagers to be outside more and participate more in nature, especially during these times when we’re all cooped up in our houses,” she explained. “We have so many amazing outdoor resources in this community.”
Of course, the online format made a group camp hard.
“It was really different and really strange to do an environmental resource camp when you couldn’t see anybody,” Jorgensen said.
In her past experience with the camp, the students were together for the full week every day, working on difficult projects which brought them closer.
“Seeing all their faces on a computer screen is not the same at all,” Jorgensen said.
Northwest Watershed Institute invited mystery field guests to bi-weekly interactive Zoom videoconference sessions, who gave presentations about their field of expertise and answered questions. Each guest ended with a challenge activity for the students to do on their own in their home area, including wildlife tracking, plant identification, conservation, restoration, growing local food, trip planning, and honing outdoor skills.
Field guest experts included people from federal agencies, leaders from local businesses, and citizen scientists with special interests. Some excelled in nature observation or wildlife tracking, others in ecology and conservation, and others still in safety, first aid and outdoor readiness.
“We all saw the irony of not being outside while learning about being outdoors. Everyone just wanted to hurry up and get off the call so they could go outside and do the challenges,” said another participant, Eugenia Frank.
One new aspect from previous years is the inclusion of a final project, for which students designed and executed a project to either help the natural world or learn new outdoor skills.
Projects included making baskets of invasive weeds, restoring shoreline along Tarboo Bay, creating fountains for wildlife, and designing an amphibian habitat, among many more. One creative student particularly impressed Rubin by recreating the famous woodblock print “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” by Katsushika Hokusai out of plastic and other trash picked up over a two-week cleanup of Port Townsend’s beaches.
Going into her junior year at Chimacum High School, Ava Vaughn learned of YES! from a friend who completed the program last year.
“We live in such a beautiful place and I feel like we owe it to the environment to do our part,” Vaughn said.
For her final project, Vaughn cleaned up and helped maintain the NWI conservation site on Tarboo Bay, just half a mile from her home.
She was able to complete some of the weekly challenges with neighbors who were also in the program while staying 6 feet apart, which helped with some of the social isolation of the digital camp.
“A lot is happening right now in the world, and this was a way of grounding myself to nature, a bit of an escape,” Vaughn said.
It was hard to connect over Zoom, Vaughn said, but program organizers worked to encourage friendship.
“What’s really important is that we feel connected as students, because a big part of this is camaraderie,” she said.
Twin sisters Viola and Eugenia Frank joined the YES! Base Camp from the Pi Program in the Chimacum school district. At 16 years old and stuck at home under Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders, the two were eager to get out and explore the world around them.
“Since quarantine started we didn’t really have much to do except schoolwork at home,” Eugenia said. “Because we live on acreage with lots of nature, the program seemed like a good way to use the resources around.”
The online nature of this year’s program actually helped the Franks, who would otherwise have difficulty committing to a week-long program in Port Townsend and missing school, said Eugenia, who originally heard of the program from older friends who participated in previous years.
The weekly challenges provided a bit of structured activity. Viola especially enjoyed learning about basket weaving and making rope from Nicole Larson, which meant she could channel her existing passion for crafting into the YES! program.
They worked on very different final projects while utilizing the same space; Viola removed invasive holly trees and replaced them with native plants, Eugenia created recipes using primarily edible plants and compiled them into a cookbook.
The program graduates will be invited to help lead future restoration events with their newfound set of skills.
“The program opened my eyes to a broader range of careers within environmental science and restoration,” said Eugenia, who now might be interested in overseeing an environmental organization. “Maybe my dream job is somewhere in the environmental restoration field and I don’t even know it yet.”
“There are a lot more diverse job opportunities than I thought of before,” Viola added. “A lot more roles I didn’t even know existed.”
This year’s participants included students from Port Townsend, Chimacum, and Quilcene school districts: Antonio Rioseco, Ava Vaughn, Ben Martin, Chloe Lampert, Viola Frank, Eugenia Frank, Tusker Behrenfeld, Akelya Behrenfeld, Madrona Eickmeyer, Emily Kilgore, Grace Wenzel, Hugh Wenzel, Haley Moore, Reece Kjeldgaard, Stella Jorgensen, and Zia Plumb Magill.
The group has still not met together in-person. For now, the restrictions of Phase 2 of Washington’s “Safe Start” reopening plan prohibit them from gathering. To compensate for this, NWI has started supporting teen-led mini-work parties/five-person events to help the participants practice what they have learned and step into leadership roles on coastal clean-ups and projects at the Tarboo Wildlife Preserve.
Thanks to a grant from Washington’s “No Child Left Inside” program, the camp was offered at no cost. Additional funds were raised through the Port Townsend Food Co-Op’s “Beans for Bags” program.
Northwest Watershed Institute is currently looking for funding to continue offering outdoor leadership training and healthy outdoor opportunities for young people, especially during the pandemic.