Youth Environmental Educators overcome pandemic year

A Youth Environmental Educator (left) works on an activity with children in 2019.

Many youths in underserved communities must work to support their families. Yet, most internship opportunities for middle- and high-school age youth are unpaid, which is a disadvantage to those youth who must choose a paying job. Providing positive youth development internships with financial compensation offers job work-life skills, financial literacy, and support for the family.

In response, the regional government Metro, which serves Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, entered into a partnership with Oregon State University Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Program to reach youth in historically underserved and underrepresented communities through the Youth Environmental Educators Program. The program, formerly known as Blue Lake Young Rangers, was piloted in the summer of 2015 and has since expanded into what is now a year-long program. An aspect of the program was having the youth as paid employees provide hands-on activities at Blue Lake Regional Park in Fairview during the summer.

Those in-person activities were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But OSU Extension and Metro didn’t want to put on hold the valuable life skills the program offers. The partners prioritized the continuation of the program and staff worked to completely reorganize and shift to a virtual space.

As a result, 11 youth ranging in ages 12 to 17 participated in a nine-week virtual program alongside 4-H and Metro staff, working on activities such as making grab-and-go science kits and interactive self-guided garden activities. The interns focused on their own career-readiness skills by creating individual professional portfolios with two Metro Waste Prevention & Environmental Service Department Interns who attend college. The participants continue to regularly meet with Extension staff and volunteers throughout the year as they prepare to participate in the 2021 summer program.

This was the first paid work experience for all 11 of the participants. Eighty-two percent of the youth identified as people of color, and seven different languages were spoken by participants. Nearly all of the participants qualified for free- or reduced meals at their schools.

One of the students who had been involved in the program for five years was accepted by Stanford University and stated that the Youth Environmental Educator program “played a big part in [his] essays.”

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