Learning Today to Steward Tomorrow
Lake Forest Open Lands Association in Illinois has long emphasized environmental education. Since its founding in 1967, it has acquired or reserved over 800 acres that it has restored and now maintains for the benefit of the community. In keeping with the belief that education is a key to maintaining community support over the long term, Lake Forest Open Lands has for many years provided a conservation element to the science curricula of local schools. They have also offered a summer day camp for kids in grades pre-K through 6. And in 2009 they launched the Center for Conservation Leadership (CCL). This novel initiative provides more sustained programming to students who have shown an interest in nature and the environment, but are not yet ready for, or do not have access to, internships at some of the major conservation organizations
Fostering Tomorrow's Leaders
CCL has developed a curriculum that is designed to foster the conservation leaders of tomorrow by empowering the youth of today with a practical understanding of conservation issues through experiential learning. In establishing CCL’s mission, Lake Forest Open Lands also reached beyond Lake Forest, an affluent north shore suburb of Chicago, to include students from an economically and socially diverse range of neighboring communities in Lake County. The concept of environmental stewardship is no less relevant to urban dwellers than it is to suburban or rural residents, and it is vital to establish a strong conservation ethic in all communities.
Each year, CCL provides a group of 15 to 20 ninth and tenth grade girls and boys with a comprehensive exposure to the concept of environmental stewardship. Its one-year certificate program begins with a three-week trip to several sites in northern Wisconsin, where the students get an introduction to hands-on field research. In addition to working alongside scientists from universities and other conservation organizations, the students engage in team-building
and leadership exercises as they make friends with peers from very different backgrounds. The trip includes hiking and camping, kayaking on streams and rivers and a day aboard a research vessel on Lake Superior. For some CCL students the trip provides their first opportunity to participate in nature, rather than just observe it.
From Distance Learning to Practice
During the following school year, CCL arranges a series of workshops that introduce the students to social aspects of conservation. These include learning about conservation professions, implementation of sustainable technologies and reconciling issues of environmental justice. The culminating element of the CCL program is the stewardship project. To put environmental leadership into practice, the students conceive, design and conduct conservation-oriented projects that affect the lives of citizens in their own communities. CCL pairs each student with a volunteer adult mentor, who serves as a guide and general resource to the student for the project. After carrying out their stewardship projects during the school year, the students make formal presentations at a certificate ceremony in May.
A high percentage of CCL graduates choose to work for Lake Forest Open Lands the next summer as field interns. These interns take a five-day environmental study trip to a different region, where they meet and share ideas and experiences with local students. This year’s group participated in a conservation exchange with the Edisto Island Open Land Trust in South Carolina, a collaboration forged at last year’s Land Trust Alliance Rally.
Improving the Community
The stewardship projects have been very successful in engaging the students in concentrated efforts that have led to real environmental improvements to their communities. In a range of clean-up projects, CCL students have:
- Recruited schoolmates, family, friends and neighbors to clean parks and reclaim abandoned lots for recreation;
- Organized a panel of environmental speakers for an in-school workshop;
- Built and installed nesting shelters for waterfowl;
- Conducted a population study of a declining snake species; and
- Obtained a grant for a school to install a permeable walkway made of recycled glass that eliminates rainwater runoff erosion.
Applying Their Skills
While the CCL program specifically addresses environmental responsibility, it provides students with a set of skills and experiences that will serve them in many ways throughout their lives. The projects require students to:
- Engage in feasibility analysis and long-range planning
- Collaborate with peers
- Coordinate with people in their communities
- Communicate effectively with adults
- Make and fulfill commitments
- Craft presentations and practice public speaking skills
The Center for Conservation Leadership provides a “high touch” program and reaches out to find committed students who will make the program a truly reciprocal experience. CCL uses a growing network of school, after-school and church program advisors to help find students in diverse communities, and the program’s graduates are proving to be enthusiastic recruiters. CCL requires a small tuition contribution from students, but the great majority of the program’s costs are covered by a mix of corporate and foundation grants and individual donor support. Seeing the students’ presentations as well as evidence that the students are continuing to pursue conservation programs after CCL, the grantors and donors are pleased that their support is making
a long-term difference.
CCL continues to fine tune its curriculum, build awareness in its target communities and expand its funding base. On the strategic front, CCL is
looking farther afield to find like-minded organizations with which it can
network and set up exchange programs in other regions.
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photos: Susie Hoffmann, Lake Forest Open Lands Association