Invasive plants choke out native growth and disrupt the balance of the local ecosystem. But if bush honeysuckle and winter creepers have one positive, it’s job security.
On Tuesday, the Nature Works crew in Forest Park took their pruners and loppers to a small island in the middle of the park’s waterway, not far from Steinberg Skating Rink. They hacked away at the aggressive shrubbery, piling the branches inside a metal rowboat.
Keoveona Smith, 17, was one of the crew members waiting on the boardwalk across from the island. Her side would pull a yellow tether to bring the boat ashore, unload it and send it back for more.
Keoveona was already working a part-time job at a café when she heard about Nature Works during a career presentation at her school. She decided to apply for the $10-an-hour summer internship.
“I like that it’s very interactive, not only to do something physically, but helping other people and interacting with my crew members,” she said.
The grant-funded Forest Park Forever program employs 11 teenagers. They attend training sessions with other teens doing conservation work and take field trips to sites such as Shaw Nature Reserve and Tyson Research Center. They do restoration projects throughout the park, starting early each morning to try to elude the heat.
“I like learning about new things I didn’t even know about, like leaf structures and how to identify plants,” said Keoveona, who will be a senior at Carnahan High School of the Future in St. Louis. “I had been interested in psychology after graduation, but after coming here, I’m having second thoughts. I’m thinking horticulture, maybe.”
Exposing students to career options in conservation and the environment is part of the aim of Nature Works, said Ellie Stevens, education coordinator at Forest Park Forever.
“We want to give the kids context for what they’re doing and how that’s part of a larger regional effort,” she said.
They have “cross-pollination” days with the three other organizations that make up the Green Teen Alliance: the Missouri Botanical Garden, the St. Louis Science Center and the Audubon Center at Riverlands in West Alton.
Between the four groups, about 55 teens do paid “green” internships. The summer begins with a “base camp” in Forest Park, where everyone meets and gets an overview of the environmental issues facing the region.
The mid-summer gathering, held this week, is a career day hosted by the botanical garden. Professionals from organizations such as the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Gateway Greening and the St. Louis Zoo talk about job opportunities, interviewing skills and networking.
“We want them to get a sense of the different fields and other places in St. Louis where this kind of work is happening,” said Stevens.
Demand has been growing for conservation and land preservation work. Meanwhile, some colleges have been cutting their horticulture programs.
“The pool of people with relevant land management experience in their background is waning,” said Stevens.
In 2017, the National Association of Landscape Professionals reported that 71,000 full-time jobs had gone unfilled. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs in renewable energy, pollution cleanup and natural resource preservation to grow at a faster clip than the overall economy.
“As more businesses are focusing on green ideas and changing how they’ve done things in the past, this (program) gets teens exposed to other jobs that are in this field,” said Samantha Sorrick, who oversees the Outdoor Youth Corps at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “Anybody can be involved in this field.”
The youth corps has two bases of operation: Six teens work out of the garden; 10 others start their day at the O’Fallon Park Rec Complex. Each group goes into the community to do maintenance work at nearby cemeteries or parks and sometimes comes together for bigger jobs.
“They learn as they go, because they’re doing different projects every week,” Sorrick said.
On Monday, Yousif Alabassi, 17, carried some bamboo poles to the children’s garden to build a trellis for the burgeoning cucumber plants to climb. He and Natalie Hartman, 16, connected the ends of two spars with twine, wrapping it over, under and around, as visitor engagement educator Kyle Dargatz directed them.
Once they had lashed the bamboo into an inverted V shape, Natalie grabbed a mallet to drive the spars into the ground.
“You’ve seen ‘Lord of the Rings’?” Dargatz asked. Don’t swing the mallets the way they wield war hammers in the film, he explained to the interns. “It’s horrible body mechanics. But it makes for great cinema.”
The pair eschewed the Hollywood technique and successfully anchored the trellis.
Yousef eyed their handiwork as he grabbed a drink of water. He had heard about the Outdoor Youth Corps from his science teacher at Cleveland High School.
He likes being outside, he said, as well as most of the jobs they have been doing.
“This was kind of hard,” he said as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. “But it’s easier than pulling invasive plants.”