Opening Doors With Youth Engagement
Our youth programming creates opportunities for young people to engage with nature
Getting youth excited about trees and green spaces is one of the best parts about our work. Friends of Trees engaged over 250 young people through youth programming this season!
“I had kids coming up to me and saying, ‘this is your job?!’” Green Space Specialist Kaitie Benedek says of her time working with students from CF Tigard Elementary School and Fowler Middle School. On five different planting days, 5th, 6th, and 7th grade classes planted native plants at Woodard Park and Dirksen Nature Park, which is adjacent to the middle school’s campus.
“We’d have classes of 25 at a time planting for one class period, so it was super fast,” Kaitie says. “So many kids got excited about planting, and about getting to contribute to this park right by their school. A lot of the kids even named their plants.”
Students from Cascade Education Corps (CEC) helped lead the plantings. CEC members are high school students following an alternative path to graduation by working on hands-on environmental projects. They spend three days per week out in the field working on restoration projects sponsored by other Tree for All partners, including Clean Water Services and Friends of Trees. With elementary, middle and high schoolers working together and people walking by in the park offering encouragement, the plantings at Dirksen and Woodard had a wonderful intergenerational feel to them.
That spirit of connection and mentorship was present at Oregon Trail Elementary too, where forestry students from the Sabin-Schellenberg Center helped facilitate a full day of hands-on environmental education.
“Teachers and parent chaperones were very happy to get the kids outside,” says Green Space Specialist Meng Vue. “These kids weren’t afraid to get dirty.”
Students rotated through five different stations, learning to plant and mulch, decorating wood cookies, and learning about the local ecology with skulls, pelts, and pine cones. The goal was to show students all aspects of a healthy watershed and how planting native plants is an important component of that.
“When you get students involved in learning about the environment, appreciating the place and engaging with it, they’ll take those lessons home and share them,” Meng says.
Harrison Layer, another Green Space Specialist, echoes the importance of opening those doors through education. “When I was young, I saw nature as a big green blob. What are the ways to start to get curious?”
Harrison works closely with students from Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC), a nonprofit that connects high school youth with career training, including partnering with Friends of Trees. POIC students train as crew leaders and lead Friends of Trees plantings throughout the season.
“We had several students from last year come back this year,” Harrison says, “and it was great to see them grow into a leadership role. The mix of veteran and new students worked really well.”
Working with the POIC crew for an entire season means that you can see amazing growth in skills and confidence. “Everyone grew in their public speaking ability,” Harrison says. “By the end of the season, we had some students who demonstrated the confidence to represent their program through elevator pitches to large groups of volunteers at the beginning of our events.”
In addition to helping at plantings, POIC students got to go on several field trips, including mountain biking at Gateway Green, studying ecosystems at Whitaker Ponds Nature Park, and getting to know turtles and amphibians at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.
“One of the students at Oaks Bottom referred to this program as ‘unlocking’ new places for them to know and appreciate, much like a video game,” Harrison says. “I loved that!”