.Providing Youth Access to Environmental Education, Work Experience

For the past six years, Watsonville Wetlands Watch (WWW) has invited high schoolers to work alongside professionals to experience a range of environmental-based careers.

The organization’s Green Careers Institute aimed to give students an understanding of the impacts of climate change and a window into the work being done to stop it.

Things changed in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent shelter-in-place orders went into effect worldwide. WWW began looking for ways to adapt its education programs, including Green Careers, in a safe way. Thus, the organization’s new Climate Corps Leadership Institute (CCLI) was born.

“This year, with conditions so different … we had to rethink our programs,” said Watsonville Wetlands Watch Executive Director Jonathan Pilch. “This community has had a huge challenge with distance learning, so we’ve been doing what we can to help out. [CCLI] was one way we could do that.”

The institute is a blend of distance learning and in-person activities, following current Covid-19 safety guidelines. CCLI students participated in a four-week training program over the summer, focusing on climate change and local environmental projects. This fall, their work has continued through a paid internship, helping plant trees, maintain trails, restore wetlands and work at WWW’s native plant nursery.

Pilch said it was important that the students are paid a stipend for their work given the current unemployment rate.

“[The pandemic] has been especially hard for youth who usually work during the summer to help support their families,” he said. “We wanted to connect the work we do with addressing that issue. And it’s supporting them through their academic careers … helping them move into fields that are meaningful to them.”

On Nov. 16, WWW had a group of 12 students from the institute planting new Shumard Oak trees at Brentwood and Victoria Park. The planting was part of the Watsonville Community Forest Project, an ongoing effort with the city of Watsonville to add thousands of trees to the city. For the next month, more plantings will be held at various parks and schools, bringing the total number of new trees to 450.

Ileana Ortega Brunnetti, WWW’s Community Outreach and Development Director, said programs like CCLI are instrumental in bringing equity into a community.

“With all that’s happening in the world currently … this is how we can support families, in our areas of expertise,” Brunnetti said. “And in terms of academic development … they’re learning a lot, and seeing careers they never thought possible.”

Another upside is what it gives the students personally—especially during the pandemic, when they are usually stuck at home and have little connection with their classmates.

“They get joy from it,” Brunnetti said.  “They’re just excited to get out of their houses, see their peers … when you go up and talk to them they are just so happy to be outside, together in a community.”

Added Pilch: “This is a really hard time for teens. One thing I’ve noticed about [CCLI] is that it gives them hope. They talk about how working on these projects gives them hope for the future of their community, and their planet.”

WWW is moving ahead with its other work, including supporting the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in its extended learning model and continuing its Adopt a Tree program. Brunnetti and Pilch extended their thanks to the community for their support in 2020, which has been a challenging year for environmental nonprofits.

“We really want to recognize the difficult year it’s been … but also extend our gratefulness to the community,” Brunnetti said. “We’ve felt the support and the care … so thank you for that.”

Watsonville Wetlands Watch is participating in this year’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday giving campaign. Learn more about how you can support them and other local groups by clicking here.


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