Feature Article - March 2014
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No Teen Left Inside

Attracting Teens Into Outdoor Programs

By Kelli Anderson


Breaking Away

Sometimes it isn't a different activity that a teen needs, but a focus on how to connect nature to their typically more indoor interests like the arts.

Sneaking in nature experiences to help rally the troops isn't just for staff. It turns out, it's also a great way to get the attention and keep it in teen programs that aren't necessarily outdoor-oriented.

When Nolan was first tasked by his director to focus on the third pillar of the NPRA (conservation ethics) in their programming, it meant looking for opportunities for service learning. Something they discovered was that by adding an unexpected element—say, kayaking or a service/learning project in the woods—that this kind of break-away from the norm often captures their attention in a way that nothing else does.

"We have an opportunity to expand existing programs and tweak them a little bit to incorporate nature into it," Nolan explained. "A lot of kids have never been kayaking or we do an overnight where many have never been camping. It's great to expose them to that to something they might not normally be able to do."

His focused approach usually begins by looking at an existing program to ask how he can raise a teen's awareness of their surroundings so they are more likely to pay attention, to try to build on and keep their curiosity and, hopefully, develop a passion for being outdoors and in nature. According to him, this progression has worked the best, and especially so when it's a surprise element of a typically indoor activity.

Great Expectations

Another way to get teen attention is to appeal to their future. In Henderson, the kids know participants in the Jr. Lifeguard program have a pathway to a paying job.

"When they come to be part of the program, provided they put in their hours and do a good job, they're guaranteed a job with us when they turn 16," Summers said. "Not only are they interested in being part of a team and working, but they look forward to the end result of being able to work for us."

This also has been a great way to reduce the need for recruitment. By using teens already in their system, they have the advantage of hiring those already trained to their specifications, who are invested in the program long-term and who already know their staff.

Banks, too, has found that helping teens see their service to the parks as a gateway to real jobs and career training has been a good incentive, attributing their 88 to 90 percent retention rate in part to their commitment to helping teens see a brighter future for themselves.

For the past three years, in fact, their programming has included working with older teens out of school and partners to do career counseling, GED training and to develop crews to do work projects when a teen shows an interest in a particular career. This year they will even be working with a local university to take on teens for a forestry academy that will earn the participants college credit.

"We want to make sure we are preparing these kids for a career in their field," Banks said of their goals. "They will come away with a certificate, training and will have built skills levels. There will be a difference between those who come through the CJC and the kid who comes off the street."

Others have found that tapping into local graduation requirements (service work) is a great way to attract teen interest in environmental service and a great opportunity to educate them not just about the environment, but environmental careers and to leave their programs as more educated voters for environmental needs.

The advantages are also monetary. "In my section alone in aquatics last year, over 10 weeks we staffed junior lifeguards and saved $56,000 and had the highest grossing revenue year—almost over a million," Summers said. "That's because of their assistance, we can take more people into our pools, increase our participation and have additional eyes. Plus, we have help with check-in and really a lot of areas they can assist with extra supervision, so it's a great resource for revenue generation and for savings."

Banks, too, said that the Department of Natural Resources in Maryland has been the beneficiary of the hard and dedicated work they have seen from their CJC participants, resulting in a budget that is 1.5 million dollars in the black.

According to Banks, one of the biggest mistakes they made was underestimating the amount of work their teens could do. "The first two or three years, we didn't have enough for them to complete," he said of their formerly low expectations. "But when the CJC raised the bar for these kids, many got up at 5:30 in the morning to get to work in heat, rain and with bugs and reptiles. They blew the lid off the projects so fast."

Although it's still early to tell the impact that working in the environment has had on the CJC participants, Banks knows that they are making a difference. "Once you put them in a place where they use different senses, muscles and parts of their minds, we see a difference in kids," he said. "We see a change in self-esteem and how they carry themselves and we teach them how to be a steward of the environment. That's the foundation of where we're going as a program."