WEST ALTON — On a bird sanctuary on the banks of the Mississippi River, a group of St. Louis-area teenagers are spending their summer acquiring science, leadership and career development skills through the Audubon Center at Riverlands’ Flight Crew program.
As part of the program, the teens travel to organizations throughout the region to learn about scientific careers and gain experience conducting field work.
This year, Flight Crew teens range from juniors in high school to sophomores in college and are from the Ferguson-Florissant and Hazelwood school districts.
The first half of the internship was structured around key environmental themes, including water, land and wildlife conservation. Teens recently met with Insiyaa Ahmed, who is part of the Environmental Stewardship team at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). USACE owns the land where Audubon Center at Riverlands is situated in West Alton.
Ahmed taught the Flight Crew how to identify insects and capture them using nets. “Insiyaa generously shared about her own career path, which has taken her around the country and even to Costa Rica, as she has studied wildlife and conservation,” said Michelle Wiegand, education manager at the Audubon Center.
The Flight Crew also visited Litzsinger Road Ecology Center and Metropolitan Sewer District’s Bissell Plant in St. Louis. At the TreeHouse Wildlife Center in Dow, Ill., the teens saw baby opossums, a bald eagle, screech owls and other animals while learning about wildlife rehabilitation.
In addition, Flight Crew helps teens develop leadership and teamwork skills.
“We wanted teamwork to be a big thing in the eight-week program,” said Emily Connor, educator at the Audubon Center. The paid internships are funded through a partnership between STL Youth Jobs and the Audubon Center at Riverlands. Audubon’s portion is supported by grants from Boeing and the Norman J. Strupp Foundation.
Connor and Wiegand planned a series of team-building activities and challenges for the teens. “We anticipated it would take 45 minutes for them to complete each activity, but they were finishing them in 15 to 20 minutes,” Connor said.
“It’s been so fun,” said Jermani Floyd, a rising junior at McCluer North High School, adding, “Since day one we just clicked.”
Now the Flight Crew is putting these skills to use by facilitating activities at the Little Creek Summer Camp in Florissant, which is also offered through the Audubon Center at Riverlands.
The free, week-long camp provides third through fifth grade students opportunities to develop science, literacy, outdoor recreation and social skills. One of the three camp sessions started this week, and the last session ends Aug. 2, with free transportation to and from Little Creek Nature Area.
“Kids are naturally curious,” Wiegand said. “This camp offers a high-quality learning experience for free.”
Flight Crew members lead groups of 10 to 12 campers who are assigned to one of four houses: the fierce falcons, blazing bunnies, flying spiders or super swans.
Along with serving as role models for the campers, the Flight Crew facilitates hands-on activities throughout the week.
“We’ve learned how to facilitate everything,” said Deija Duncan, who will be a freshman at Missouri State University this fall.
These activities include bird hikes, a pond ecology lesson, mammal investigations and cooking over a campfire. Other events are led by organizations including the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Each day starts with “All Camp Jam,” where campers hear about the plan for the day, read books, sing songs or watch a skit.
The last day of camp, kids travel to the Audubon Center at Riverlands to learn about bird migration and go canoeing with Big Muddy Adventures. Campers also create memory books and build pine cone feeders to take home.
“What we do is really place-based,” said Connor. Focusing on environmental issues relevant to St. Louis “allows teens to take ownership and feel empowered to make an impact.”
“It’s definitely impacted my life,” said Jamiah Cole, a rising junior at Hazelwood West. “Now I want to save the world.”
Editor's note: At the TreeHouse Wildlife Center the teens saw baby opossums while learning about wildlife rehabilitation. An earlier version of this story contained the incorrect animal.