Home » Teens team up to help the environment

Teens team up to help the environment

by Amie Rukenstein

The local Hopewell Valley environment will soon be the beneficiary of an audacious new program that will pair Hopewell Valley Central High School (CHS) students and students from the Mercer County Boys and Girls Clubs (BGC) to work together on conservation measures. And now the public has the opportunity to help. 

The program, entitled “Building Conservation through Diversity and Teamwork,” is the brainchild of a partnership among leaders of local non-profit and other organizations looking for ways to both make the environment more accessible to diverse populations and to expand the cultural experience of high school students.

According to Lisa Wolff, Executive Director of the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space (FoHVOS) and one of the founders of the program, the path to this program began when, in 2004, CHS teacher David Angwenyi first came to Hopewell Valley from Kenya. 

Wolff explains that, as Angwenyi’s dark complexion and unusual accent stood out at CHS, students approached him with curiosity and Dr. Angwenyi’s giving nature was to share.  

“He wanted to introduce people to his culture and homeland and in 2007, he took the first of many CHS student groups to Kenya,” Wolff states. “David believes that the secret to breaking down perceived barriers is simply being exposed to more, realizing gratitude for what you have, and finding common connections in uncommon places.”

HVCHS student John Ratliff meets new friends on the 2018 Kenya trip, (Photo courtesy of Global Connections Kenya)

The Hopewell-Kenya trips were life-changing for everyone involved. Students came back transformed, and the Kenyan village of Keroka reaped its benefits. A CHS club grew out of the trips, which is now called Global Connections. In the meantime, Wolff, who at the time was a member of the Hopewell Valley Board of Education, and Angwenyii had started to talk about what could come next.  

“[Global Connections] has produced a successful model,” Wolff explains, yet, she says, she and Angwenyii felt like they could do more. As the Global Connections website states, it “helps to eradicate preconceived notions so that connections among different communities can be fostered and enhanced.” Wolf says they wondered if they could replicate that result locally. “After all,” she asked, “do Hopewell students really need to travel to Kenya to find purpose or be exposed to diversity?” 

In an effort to find opportunities for local kids to expand their world view on a more daily basis, members of FoVHOS encouraged Angwenyi to reach out to the BGC and the three organizations soon realized they shared a common vision. David Anderson, BGC President, stated that he was thrilled about gaining connections and opportunities for BGC students, and Zoubir Yazid, BGC Chief Operating Officer, said he saw tremendous potential for all the students to expand their world view.

David Angwenyi, HVCHS; Lisa Wolff,FoHVOS; Dave Anderson, BGC; Zoubir Yazid, BGC
(Photo courtesy of FoHVOS).

Unlike many organizations that purport “to help,” the mission of Global Connections was always to be a “partnership of equals.” The three new partners also wanted to make that a cornerstone of their new program. So, CHS and BGC students will work on projects together to contribute and bond as peers. FoHVOS has offered up conservation work as the vehicle. A pilot group of CHS and BGC students recently joined together for Clean Communities service work followed by team-building exercises and pizza. Wolff says that from the start, it was clear to the founders that the concept has potential. 

Wanda McNeill, Director, Marketing and Community Outreach, for the Mercer County Park Commission heard about the initiative and offered her assistance. Mercer County Parks has a goal to attract underserved populations to its public lands. With that in mind,McNeill told the group that the CHS/BGC initiative might benefit from local opportunities offered by the parks as well.

As Wolff tells it, the challenge was to design a program that met the goals of all participating organizations and the needs of the kids. So, she said that they looked to build ideas from other successful programs. At the time, the FOHVOS Strike Team was partnering with United Parks As One to administer a program to provide conservation training to Newark high school students. Funded by the Victoria Foundation, the program trained students throughout Newark and that became the  model for the Mercer County program.

HVCHS and Mercer County Boys and girls Club students participate in Clean Communities service work. (Photo courtesy of FoHVOS).

A paid internship project called “Building Conservation through Diversity & Teamwork” was formed to offer teamwork, leadership, and conservation training from the groups’ experts and culminate in conservation service projects. FoHVOS applied for grants with letters of support from Global Connections, BGC, the Sourland Conservancy, and Mercer County Parks.

Some of the outcomes anticipated in the grant proposal include students well-educated in the issues of environmental stewardship and conservation; the opportunity for their personal development and resume building as they learn leadership skills and to work effectively with diverse teams; and the myriad benefits to the community as the group works to conserve open space and are inspired to continue environmental work as volunteers, interns, or even employees.

Wolff states that the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) was the first funder to respond to the grant application, providing a Parker grant as seed money. She said that, unfortunately, another source of program funding that was expected is no longer available. However, as people and organizations learn about the “Building Conservation through Diversity & Teamwork” program, she says, the circle of support is growing. She said that enthusiasm has fueled this project so much that about $2,000 of the $10,000 requested has been raised, but support is still needed.

“Now we need the public’s help to offer this innovative program to high school students throughout Mercer County into the new year.” Wolff explains. “To help students build conservation through diversity and teamwork, please consider giving to the GoFundMe.”

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