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More Than a Paycheck

River Revitalization Foundation

River Revitalization Foundation The Milwaukee River Valley has been transformed thanks to the hard work of the students enrolled in the Earn & Learn program, created by the city of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board and the Milwaukee Department of City Development. For the past five summers, the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF) has participated in the program, bringing ethnically diverse crews of student workers from Milwaukee into the River Valley to work on various restoration projects. Both the students and the land trust benefit from this shared experience: the students are given many opportunities for growth, while the land trust gains from their youthful energy and able hands.

The Future Workforce

Earn & Learn’s mission is to give inner-city high school students valuable work experience and exposure to possible careers. The program is part of a regional goal to build economic growth and strength by teaching the future workforce vital professional skills that will lead to rewarding careers. Earn & Learn is designed to help these young people, ranging in age from 14 to 21, make a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Every summer, the program places students in government, community and faith-based organizations and private sector businesses for paid and unpaid internships. The internships are meant to replicate real world jobs and are designed to help the participants develop important work skills, such as responsibility, timeliness, teamwork and discipline. By acquiring these basic skills and work experience, these young people are poised to be more successful in securing and retaining their first job. Students must take their responsibilities seriously and perform up to par to remain in the program.

Earn & Learn

RRF usually receives seven to 14 student workers each summer whose main task is restorative work in the river valley. During their time with RRF, these students are mentored by RRF staff and college graduates, providing the young workers with exposure to environmental careers. While learning more about environmental restoration, the students gain work experience that may give them a boost when applying for jobs in the environmental field.

In addition to improving their resumé and gaining experience, the students are given the opportunity to work in a healthy, outdoor environment. As project manager and head supervisor of RRF’s student workers, Vince Bushell says that he plans a flexible and creative schedule for the summer program. His role is to advise and work with the students, lead hiking expeditions and explain the landscape from biological, historical and geological perspectives. Under his supervision, these students whack away at knotweed, build benches and assist with a variety of other projects for the foundation. In bad weather, the students move inside to work at the foundation’s new ecology center.
Bushell strives to educate the students on the surrounding environment as well as on restorative work, explaining, for example, why they have to weed out certain plants and where those invasive plants came from. He also teaches the student crew about the river habitat and the importance of the land. Each day he integrates as much education into the program as he can, in an effort to spark interest in land conservation.

RRF’s partnership with Earn & Learn has resulted in some innovative projects:

  • During the summers of 2009 and 2010, supervisors created hiking stories with the student crews. The students compiled stories, drawings and photos from the river to create the “Quest” document, a trail and nature guide for walkers and hikers who traverse the river trails.
  • In the summer of 2011 the student crew decorated turtle costumes and wore them at a festival during which the students informed people of their work and promoted the Earn & Learn program.
  • In the summer of 2012 the high school crew created effigy mounds reminiscent of the Woodland Period of Wisconsin’s native people.

The students work hard during the summer, but Bushell also plans fun activities such as hiking and boating. He teaches the students how to use canoes and kayaks, and together they explore the river. Although Bushell says, “Some kids are scared; they have never been out on a river before,” he affirms that, by the end of the day, everyone is enjoying themselves.

Changing Lives

An important aspect of RRF’s program is its openness to any young person who would like to participate. The majority of the crew members come from low-income households, and many face challenges in their personal lives. Their reasons for participating and level of interest vary, which sometimes creates friction within the group and resistance to the program’s guidelines. For example, RRF does not allow the workers to listen to music or use their phones so that participants can get the full experience of being immersed in nature. Occasionally, outside forces such as a lack of transportation or home issues hamper continuing participation.

Despite these obstacles, RRF staff is confident that their program is changing lives.

RRF is led by Executive Director Kimberly Gleffe and “our excellent board,” says Bushell. “Kimberly loves the birds and  shares her knowledge of the abundant species that visit the river lands with our crew. This year our new hire Tanya Bueter is in charge of our summer workers and in implementing a restoration plan for the Oak savannah on our recent land acquisition. Intern Ellie Kirkwood has been a key employee in our work year round. Marcus McCoy is back for a third year as a summer employee and crew leader. Together, we are planting the metaphorical seeds that we hope will grow in the minds and lives of youth that are mostly estranged from nature.”

Bushell recalls hiking along the river and running into a young woman from the previous summer’s crew. She had brought a friend with her to picnic along the river, as she wanted to share her experience of being in nature. Other participants have gone on to incorporate the environment more directly into their lives, including some college students who changed their major to environmental science. “If the participant is open and ready to grow and learn,” Bushell says, “they will receive the full benefit of the program.” It’s a win-win situation for both the participants and the foundation—and a win, of course, for the land itself.

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Learn more about this program »

Writer: Meredith Riley
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photos: Courtesy of Vince Bushell

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