Yonkers Youth Return from Southern Wild


By James Baron and Holly Malekian

YONKERS, NY – On Friday, July 27, seven local high school graduates, all trained and mentored in Groundwork Hudson Valley’s “Green Team” program, returned from a summer in the southern wild participating in President Obama’s nationwide initiative America’s Great Outdoors: Developing the Next Generation of Conservationists.  The young men worked for six weeks in the National Forest wilderness areas of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee restoring 24-plus miles of trails to standard, making them sustainable and safe for hikers.

America’s Great Outdoors is a 21st century strategy that seeks to connect American youth to restoration and conservation projects in our forests, parks, wildlife refuges and public lands across the country.  The underlying hope is to inspire and prepare a diverse generation of young people to one day enter the work force as natural resource professionals.  It is a safe bet the President did not expect to find a group of uniquely qualified young candidates from the urban neighborhoods of Yonkers, New York!

The Groundwork participants are Roger Osorio, Kwaku Kodua, Jeffrey Jones, John Castañeda, Jose Arroyo, Rasaq Balogun, and Leon Gibbs. It is the first phase of a two-year journey that will send them to other wilderness locations to continue their efforts and receive career training to enable them to take on leadership roles.   Their summer employment assignment is funded by a grant from the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“Over the first two weeks we built a new trail that was more than two miles long in Linville Gorge, North Carolina. We rerouted a trail, following the contour of the mountain,” said Kodua, a graduate of Riverside High in Yonkers. “The first week was really hard, but after that we got used to it,” he continued. “For the third, fourth, and fifth weeks we did trail maintenance in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest and in  North Carolina’s Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. For the final week we built a new mountain trail in the Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia. For that one, we only completed 300 feet, but it was a beautiful, wide trail.”

Teaming up with Groundwork to train the young men is the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), a program of the Wilderness Society. SAWS Director Bill Hodge is the on-site supervisor of Groundwork’s team.  Hodge explains the rigorous conditions they are working under, “The young men, led by two crew leaders, hike into the backcountry and camp out during each phase of the project.  Their days are consumed with restoring and rebuilding trails that we want to endure for decades.  This involves building trail tread, constructing rock steps and preventing erosion runoff.”

Hodge continues, “The work is extremely challenging.  In accordance with The Wilderness Act of 1964 power tools are not permitted in these areas.  The team is limited to using only traditional hand tools, including the cross-cut saw and the “Pulaski” (axe/hoe hybrid tool used for digging and chopping).”

Osorio confirms that it was tough going, “It’s given me a new work ethic. You work from the moment you wake up ‘till it’s time to go to sleep. It was very hard, but once you get adjusted to the work, and the life in the woods, you can relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.”

The Groundwork team was well prepared for their task having been exposed to environmental education early on.  Curt Collier, Groundwork’s Deputy Director explains, “We start the young people with high school summer jobs within the community doing neighborhood river clean-ups, building community gardens, and volunteering on the Science Barge.  Their experiences are contextualized through trips to national parks and wildlife refuge areas.”

But the immersion doesn’t end there.  During their summer employment in the New York area, the students are taught how to build trails through deep forests and rock steps and pathways with an eye towards preventing erosion runoff—all of which is perfect training for the Groundwork Team’s wilderness trail-building assignment.

Such hands-on skills are not usually associated with young people from urban neighborhoods but are integral to future careers in conservation and preservation; careers that will be much needed if America hopes to protect and expand its natural resources in accordance with the President’s initiative.

Young people like these from Yonkers are critical to the President’s vision of creating a more diverse generation of natural resource workers.  Federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior under Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, are actively seeking to bridge the diversity gap in outdoor conservation and recreation jobs.

Collier believes organizations like Groundwork, which has locations in 20 cities across the US, are well positioned to help in the effort.  Groundwork has established deep connections to these urban communities through its training programs and local initiatives.  These ties enable Groundwork to provide a pipeline of inner city youth into the natural resource services.

Hodge has been inspired by the Groundwork team, having seen first-hand the life-changing effect of work in the wilderness on these young people.  He observes, “Initiatives like America’s Great Outdoors can be powerfully formative in changing the participants’ thinking about their relationship to nature.”  Hodge echoes the President’s hope that such experiences will encourage these young adults to explore work in the conservation and environmental fields.

Working in the national parks has had a definite impact on Osorio, “My goal is to be a teacher. In the summers, I want to do trail work in the national parks, and teach kids there. I want to help other kids experience what I’ve experienced,” he said.

Arroyo and Osorio were invited to Washington, DC to take part in Great Outdoors America Week in late July, taking a break from their wilderness work. They had the opportunity to talk with state senators and other elected officials about the importance of continuing to fund programs that encourage young people to take part in outdoor activities–like hiking, biking, and camping—as well as programs that offer conservation job training, like this one.

Back on the job, the Yonkers team was discovering unexpected rewards for their labors. “As we were nearly finishing our work on the Cohutta trail, groups of hikers kept passing by and asking what we were doing,” said Kodua. “The hikers really showed their appreciation. That made me feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride. I was glad to be a part of the crew that built that trail for people to enjoy.”

The six weeks were not only about work. The young men had ample opportunity to enjoy America’s great outdoors on the weekends. “It was fun,” Kodua reports, “we got to swim in lakes and four waterfalls. We went whitewater rafting, which I had never done before. And it gave us a chance to explore this country. I moved here from Ghana two years ago. I had never visited any of these states.”

James Baron is a local writer and attorney who is greatly interested in seeing that our natural environment is preserved for this and future generations.

Holly Malekian is Director of Development at Groundwork Hudson Valley and a member of the Dobbs Ferry Energy Task Force, a committee that advocates for sustainability initiatives in Dobbs Ferry, New York.