Helping nature while learning skills: Youth spend summer building a nature trail in Veterans Memorial Park

Bridgeport News
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Youth spend summer building a nature trail in Veterans Memorial Park

Written by Brad Durrell


Mayor Bill Finch talks to Student Conservation Association program participant Chris Diaz about the trail work at Veterans Memorial Park in the North End.

Joseph Martinez got a taste of the real world this summer.

The 17-year-old participated in the Student Conservation Association’s (SCA) four-week program to build a nature trail behind the Discovery Museum in Veterans Memorial Park.

“We did heavy stuff like lifting rocks and trees,” said Joseph, who splits his time between Bridgeport and Stratford while taking high school classes at night. “We got blisters and scratches and all that.”

Despite the physical challenges, he loved the $10 an hour job offered through the city and SCA. And he’s confident it will help him as he prepares for a career.

“You learn a new skill and you can take that with you wherever you go in life,” said Joseph, who secured the summer job through the Workplace Inc., a Bridgeport-based jobs training program. Other participants came through the city’s Lighthouse after-school and summer program.

During the SCA program, nine young people cleared land and built benches from hickory and oak trees for a trail that will replicate the solar system on a miniature scale. Participants worked 32 hours a week outdoors with axes, shovels, saws, loppers and other tools.

Joshua Rodriguez, 14, of Bridgeport, said he removed dirt, raked and built benches. He also made new friends and learned a little about what he might want to do when he gets older.

“I want to go into carpentry,” said Joshua, who began the eighth grade at Geraldine Johnson School this week.

Rafael Ruiz, 14, of Bridgeport, said the work showed him how to use new tools and sandpaper. “We helped clear a lot of land,” said Rafael, who just began his freshman year at Central Magnet High School.

Marina Deluca, one of the Bridgeport SCA leaders, said it was impressive watching the young people “turn a forest into a trail.”

“They learned they could do it,” Deluca said. “We’re proud of the work they accomplished. They learned how to use tools and figured out how to work with each other - improving their communication skills.”

“On a career ladder”

Mayor Bill Finch told the young people at an informal commencement ceremony that they were the first class in what he hopes will be an ongoing outdoor classroom program in the city.

“You’re getting trained and exposed to potential careers,” said Finch, noting he has emphasized the need for the city to create green-related jobs, meaning those related to improving the environment.

He said some of those jobs could involve the cleaning up and making further improvements at Veterans Park in the North End.

“There’s so much work to do here,” he said “We need better trails that are safe and reduce erosion. We need to remove old asphalt and fencing.”

Other positions will be created by weatherizing homes, finding cleaner energy sources, and building rain gardens and green rooftops to reduce stormwater runoff, Finch said. “This puts you on a career ladder,” he told the SCA program participants.

Finch has focused on environmental issues since being a teenager, when he was an activist in Trumbull. “Right now we’re disrespecting and cooking our planet,” he said. “We haven’t been taking care of it in a long time. And almost everything we do for the environment saves us money.”

The city also has started a Mayor’s Conservation Corps, in which young people walk door-to-door to tell residents how to make their homes more energy efficient and encourage them to recycle more.

The Veterans Park solar nature trail will include signs about the sun and planets, spaced in proportion to the solar system. It should be completed by the spring of 2010, and was designed by Stuart H. Sachs, a landscape architect from Black Rock.

Steve Hladun, special projects coordinator with the city Parks and Recreation Department, said the state-funded trail will combine recreation with education and be easily accessible to Discovery Museum visitors as well as students and staff at the new Discovery Magnet School, to be built nearby.

SCA eyes Bridgeport

Adam Hinman, SCA program director for Connecticut, said the nationwide organization has had programs in Stamford and Greenwich and is eager to become more active in Bridgeport.

“We want to build up programs in Bridgeport,” said Hinman, who congratulated program participants and presented them with free outdoor boots from Timberland.

This summer the New Hampshire-based SCA had 4,000 young people working on similar programs throughout the country. President Barack Obama participated in a SCA tree-planting program on Earth Day.

Hladun found out about the program when he attended a conference in 2008.

“The skills and techniques the program instills in its students helps them to become a more vital part of the community,” Hladun said. “It teaches them the importance of a work ethic that than can take to other jobs. They all are proud to wear the SCA helmet.”

The students were paid by SCA and by the city through federal stimulus funds targeted to environmentally-related jobs for youth.

Sean Maxfield, 17, said he loves working outside. “Landscaping is what I like to do, so this made me eager to get up every morning,” said Sean, who now is a senior at Stratford High School.

Sean’s father, James Maxfield, was proud of his son’s participation. “I was glad to see him take the initiative to get a job and to show up every day,” James said. “Sean is using the leadership skills he had learned in the Boy Scouts here.”

Chris Diaz, 18, of Fairfield, said doing the trail work was “great” and a way to make new friends. “The highlight for me was de-barking the trees,” Chris said.

Vanity Dennis, 18, of Bridgeport, called the program a learning experience. She also learned how to de-bark trees with a unique tool, among other skills.

“As an inner-city resident it was a challenge, but I like doing things outside the box and was able to meet many new people,” said Vanity, who just began attending Housatonic Community College.