A Chance to Grow & Learn: Nature Works Wraps Up Another Successful Year
In early June, six high school students from the City of St. Louis and four from St. Louis County arrived in Forest Park for the fifth season of Nature Works, Forest Park Forever’s innovative high school workforce development program.
“When they started, the students would scream and run if they saw a flying insect,” remembers Nature Works Field Coordinator Billy Haag. “But by the end of the summer, they were literally handling carpenter bees and butterflies. I saw a complete change in eight weeks.”
Haag, who completed his second Nature Works season when the 2018 program wrapped up in August, says that he changed this year, too.
“My first season, I micromanaged the students,” he admits. “I realized this year I wasn’t giving them enough credit. If you show them what to do, they have a great work ethic and are highly determined to get the job done.”
Transformations are common for Nature Works students and leaders, such as Haag and Assistant Crew Leader Aviana Pingel. The 2018 program — funded through generous grants from Boeing, ESCO Technologies Foundation, and Mysun Charitable Foundation — gives 10 local high school students the opportunity to gain field experience and educational opportunities in conservation and environmental issues they might not otherwise have, all while earning a summer paycheck. Nature Works is also a part of the Green Teen Alliance, a group of organizations that hires and pays teens to work outdoors, in research, agriculture, and conservation.
Haag says the students have many motivations for applying to the program, which grows in popularity every year. Forest Park Forever received about 45 applications this year for the 10 spots.
“The students are looking for something to do where they can get out and make a difference,” Haag explains. “A few of them were getting ready for college, and they wanted to find out if working in conservation was something they want to do as a career.”
Haag can relate. A native of Columbia, Ill., he did undergraduate work in parks and recreation management at Southeast Missouri State University before completing graduate work in the field at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He then worked in both state and national parks before joining Forest Park Forever.
“My job with Nature Works is the perfect combination of my educational background and my interest in fieldwork,” he says. “And it’s exciting to see the kids becoming immersed in and exposed to something that they don’t have in their daily lives.”
Forest Park itself is a big winner, too. Haag says the students do hard work that sets the stage for critical restoration and conservation projects he continues the rest of the year. Meanwhile, he keeps busy visiting schools and making presentations to support the program.
“It’s exciting to go out and talk about Nature Works,” Haag says, “but no one can explain it better than the students themselves.”
In that spirit, here are some of the reflections of the 10 Nature Works 2018 students — in their own words:
Preparing for College
“I have learned so much invaluable information. I especially enjoyed all the education days and plant identification projects. I can’t wait to use all that information next year in college.”
Helping the Community
“The one thing that I’ve taken away from Nature Works is I can make a bigger impact in my community. I plan to open a food/compost garden to teach others that you can make a real change in the world.”
Getting on the Right Foot
“Working in Forest Park has been an experience that I won’t forget. My first job started my career on the right foot. I am forever grateful to Forest Park Forever, the other supporters and the Green Teen Alliance for that.”
“This has been a great eight weeks with the Nature Works crew. It was very fun and very hot, and we pushed through it all as one. It was fun while it lasted, but this still isn’t the end of our friendship.”
“I had fun cutting and removing waste from areas that we came to improve, as well as restoring it for the wildlife. Also, I have gotten the chance to grow with these wonderful people who I can call my friends.”
Enjoying New Experiences
“The whole experience was new to me, so having the supervisor that I had made things a lot better for me. Handling the waterways was hard because we were working in the heat, but we still get the job done because we communicated well and helped each other out.”
“I was super excited to start working in Forest Park, and it never disappointed me. This program wasn’t really just a job — it was so much better. I will think often of Nature Works and the amazing people I met this summer. I am so thankful to have had this in my life.”
Appreciating Everyone’s Contribution
“I have loved every aspect of this job, ESPECIALLY rowing the boat, cutting brush, talking with my friends/team, eating lunch, and laughing! Each person contributed something different to the team, which allowed for different perspectives and good work ethic.”
Helping Each Other
“I learned more about Forest Park, had fun doing games with teamwork and learned a lot about plants, people skills, and nature. But what I thought was really good was that when someone got hurt or didn’t look OK, we helped out.”
Learning About Nature
“Learning how to identify a plant and describe it in a way other than ‘It’s green’ is very helpful. That was a skill I always hoped to develop. Learning how to make certain plants grow and which plants are the most harmful also truly intrigued me.”