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December 07, 2016
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LEAF: life-changing nature internships

Trails like this are open to the public at the Neversink River Preserve, which features a heron rookery and a beautiful stretch of Spring Brook.

Preparing tomorrow’s environmental leaders is an effort underway today, in a special program with a 17-year history conducted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) is a long-term initiative to empower future conservation leaders and equip them with the skills and knowledge to address pressing environmental challenges.

The program combines classroom lessons with real-world conservation work experience for urban youth from a select group of environmental high schools. Three young men from New York City are completing paid internships in LEAF, which takes place at various TNC properties throughout the region.

Recently Oscar Perez, Ren Chen and Daishawn Judge and their professional mentor, Blaze Jones-Yellin, and TNC stewardship assistant Dan Rockefeller spent part of the four-week program at the Neversink Preserve in Cuddebackville. There they performed tasks such as identifying and posting boundaries, clearing trails and removing invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed.

Earlier, the teens worked at Ramshorn-Livingston Sanctuary in Craryville, where TNC is doing invasive species research. The site is co-owned by Scenic Hudson and the National Audubon Society, both of which are partners of TNC. In addition to their tasks, the interns also had the opportunity to canoe, and even to enjoy recreational activities like swimming, roller blading and attending a drive-in theater.

The program also incorporates opportunities for the youth to visit three colleges, in this case, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Albany and PACE Westchester. It’s all part of an approach aimed at improving the likelihood that participants will pursue higher education and career paths in environmental fields. All of the interns are planning to attend college and welcomed their first chances to visit several.

Officials at the Toyota USA Foundation were so impressed with outcomes of the program that they awarded support in the form of a $3.1 million grant this year, enabling expansion to 19 states and providing 72 kids with internships.

TNC partners with such organizations utilizing a model that helps urban youth gain important life, school and workplace skills while providing sustained exposure to nature. During their work with TNC scientists, the teens helped with water sampling, observing stoneflies, hellgrammites, crayfish, a white sucker and even a northern water snake.

The program aims to provide students with a web of mentors, alumni and peers that is fundamental to successful youth development programs. With the help of their mentor, the interns also manage their living expenses for the duration of the program. Thrifty planning, conservative spending and lots of PBJs allow the young men to splurge on a special meal at the conclusion of the internship.

Intern Perez noted that while he loves his city life, he’s gained a new understanding of why and how conservation work happens. Mentor Jones-Yellin, who is studying natural resource management at Cornell University, said he values the opportunity to work with the team while learning more about TNC and its programs, people and philosophies.

TNC cites concern with today’s increasingly urban and digital world, where young people grow up without meaningful experiences in nature—the most often cited influence on adult attitudes and behaviors about the environment. The organization holds that if left unchecked, these trends could rob the environmental movement of its future leaders.

As part of the solution, the LEAF program promotes conservation literacy and a love of the outdoors while targeting urban youth from populations largely underrepresented in the conservation movement.
Visit for more information on the program.

See to read inspiring stories about LEAF alumni.