Blog Viewer

Friends of the Smokies Supports Youth Environmental Leadership

By Janine Doyle posted 03-19-2019 09:33

thumbnail image

Youth Environmental Leadership Program (YELP) is a paid internship program for youth of color
that focuses on experience in Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) careers,
particularly in the park service and conservation fields.

Since 1993, Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has raised more than $68 million to fund historic preservation, wildlife management, environmental education and more in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). This partnership has flourished over the years, building up a list of accomplishments such as the reconstruction of the historic Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower, the reintroduction of elk to the Smokies after a 150-year absence, and a massive upgrade to the Park’s emergency radio system.

In 2014, Asheville GreenWorks, a local nonprofit that manages community-based environmental conservation projects, approached GSMNP about a unique partnership opportunity. Their goal was to develop a paid internship program for youth of color that would focus on experiences in Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) careers, particularly in the park service and conservation fields.

The Park recognized this proposal as a long-term need to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion in conservation, and so they turned to Friends of the Smokies for support to make it a reality. “As the fiscal partner for the Park, we decided to fund it,” said Anna Zanetti, North Carolina Director for Friends of the Smokies. “I think it’s important for us to listen to what they need and feel is worth prioritizing.”

Now, Friends of the Smokies provides around $18,000 in funding each year for the Youth Environmental Leadership Program (YELP), facilitated by Asheville GreenWorks in partnership with Park staff as well as staff from other public lands in the Asheville area. “We’re really blessed with a plentitude of public lands in Asheville,” said Anna, and this unique collaboration opens the door for students to explore their interests in conservation efforts for those lands and beyond.

thumbnail image

YELP interns complete a range of service work including habitat restoration,
water quality monitoring, trash cleanups and trail work.

Internship Encourages Long-Term Connection to Conservation

Joéle Emma, Director of Education for Asheville GreenWorks, is in charge of creating a well-rounded curriculum for the students, including service work, education, assessment and work habit development. The service work can range from habitat restoration and water quality monitoring to trash cleanups and trail work, and the students learn along the way from experts on riparian restoration, invasive species, resume building, networking and more.

For Susan Sachs, Education Branch Chief at GSMNP and 2019 PLA Agency Leadership Award Winner, it is critical that these students finish their internships with a well-rounded understanding of the reality of conservation work. “I want for them to have a realistic impression so they can consider that when they’re making career decisions,” Susan said. “We find that, by the end of the summer, a lot of these kids have a better idea of what they might like to study in college because they’ve had such diverse experiences through YELP.”

Program collaborators are especially proud of their recent progress in engaging more young women in their program. Female intern retention had previously been low, but “last spring was our first girls only program, and we ended the summer with more young women than young men as well as an unprecedented 100% attendance,” said Joéle.

Even upon completion of their internship, these interns will continue to be mentored and introduced to real life examples of individuals with different backgrounds who have succeeded in careers in conservation. A program highlight for many has been the opportunity to meet with GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash, the first African American Superintendent of the Park.

Ariahn, a previous YELP intern, said of the experience: "Having the opportunity to do YELP has meant a lot to me. It is full of diverse programs, internships and people. It expands your knowledge into things you never knew existed or even learned in science class. There is way more to this program than hot days in the sun working to repair the environment. The people you work with make it more memorable and even more fun."

thumbnail image

A YELP intern assists GSMNP wildlife biologists collecting data
from an anesthetized bear.

Successful Partnerships Through Mutual Trust

Reflecting on YELP's early success, it is clear that strong partners are key in making these kinds of programmatic dreams a reality. “[Friends of the Smokies] helps us to do things that we just can’t do otherwise,” Susan remarked, “and they’re flexible in the ways we make things happen.” Susan felt the Park was previously struggling to connect with low-income, urban youth and credits their progress through YELP to the readiness of their partners to “rethink the way we do business and see the greater good in this relationship."

This partnership is also strengthened by a deep level of trust and respect. “We put a lot of trust in Susan, who has been in the park service for 20+ years,” said Anna. “If she thinks this is something worth us prioritizing, then we are happy to provide support.”