August 12 is International Youth Day, which is the perfect time to highlight one of our most popular summer teen volunteer programs at the WNC Nature Center! Alayna Schmidt, Teen Programs and Ed-ternship Coordinator, shared more about what her Young Naturalists did this summer:
Frogs seem to embody the spirit of change and transformation evident in the Young Naturalists program. Just like frogs go through significant metamorphosis during their lifecycle, the Young Naturalists program has also undergone significant transformations during this pandemic. We are so excited for these developments!
The Young Naturalist program has run for over 40 years, providing opportunities for teens in the Southern Appalachian Mountain region to give back to our beautiful mountain home. Many teens are local to Asheville and some travel from the borders of our neighboring states, South Carolina and Tennessee, to be a part of this impactful program. The Young Naturalist program is a nature-based youth development program emerging from a philosophy that humans are a part of nature and have a responsibility to care for nature’s communities – both the human communities we are a part of and the environmental systems we are nestled within.
Frogs have skin that is sensitive to changes in the environment. As our environment changed over the past two summers, we have been sensitive to a need to transform the way we run our program. Historically, Young Naturalists would volunteer on the grounds over the summer and help WNC Nature Center guests connect with native wildlife through interpretive wayside exhibits. The pandemic challenged us to rethink the way we run our programming, bringing us into virtual engagement and hybrid programming which opened opportunities for deeper learning in addition to service work. The ongoing desire for racial and environmental justice in our country and local community also challenged us to consider what and who is included in our program.
Frogs make calls to find and communicate with each other around the pond they call home. Similarly, the Young Naturalists called out into our local community to find others they could learn from about the topics they were interested in. And we got calls back in response! Young Naturalists expressed a desire to learn more about local issues and how they could help. This summer, Young Naturalists explored different weekly topics that developed their environmental literacy, including learning about climate action and environmental justice in our own Asheville communities. Amber Weaver from Asheville’s Office of Sustainability spoke to the teens about the City’s Climate Justice initiative. We learned from DeWayne Barton about the Burton Street Community, a local environmental justice community, on a tour with Hood Huggers International. We learned from a whole series of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color guest speakers who presented on a wide variety of topics related to nature, science, and conservation.
This summer has been unlike any other in the Young Naturalist program. While we hope to have Young Nats back on the grounds helping guests make these important human-nature connections in future years, we also embrace the positive changes that have emerged from the past two summers. The challenges we’ve encountered have pushed us to adapt and grow to better meet the needs of the teens in our program, the communities we live in, and the environment that surrounds and sustains us. The Young Naturalist program now fosters stronger connections to our local community than ever before. But don’t take my word for it…check out what Young Nats did this summer in this awesome video!
If you’re between the ages of 13-17 years old, we hope to see you in our teen programs! And if you’ve already passed the age limit, you can apply to Education Internships that help lead this program. And speaking of program leaders, our 2021 Ed-terns, Felicite, Marijke, and Oliver, were amazing leaders who made this summer’s program so impactful! Together, we can do so much more!