The Next Generation of Conservation Leaders
Grant Details: To support the New Jersey Park and Watershed Conservation Stewardship Program, which connects local high school youth to local communities to implement on the ground park restoration projects and engage in job readiness training.
Takeya Meggett is living a life she never imagined when she was growing up in Jersey City, a bustling metropolis in one of the smallest and most densely populated areas in the country.
Falling asleep inside a tent to howling coyotes in the backcountry near Ely, Nev., a wilderness four hours north of Las Vegas where she helped reverse the damage of motorized vehicles to native sagebrush.
Glimpsing grizzly bears and wolves deep inside Grand Teton National Park, a frozen wonderland where she guided visitors on snowshoe treks while teaching them about the park’s winter ecology.
Handling slithery American eels, sturgeon and river herring while standing knee-deep in the Hudson River’s upper reaches in the Catskill Mountains, a forest preserve that borders historic hamlets where she enlisted community members to help protect the declining fish populations.
“Everyone needs to do things like this, and I know because I did them and it was awesome,” said Meggett, 30, whose work experiences with the Student Conservation Association have taken her from urban oases in Newark to vast wildernesses in Alaska. “If you want to travel for free to experience different parts of the country, get skills you can use for the rest of your life, network with people and learn about different cultures, then SCA is your organization. All you need is a sense of adventure, a thirst to learn and an open mind, and you can get anywhere.”
Today, Meggett is the recruiting coordinator for SCA’s Mid-Atlantic region based in Jersey City, near the park where her grandmother once took her for walks and where she developed a “better understanding and appreciation for every living thing,” she said. She shares her story and tells youth about the opportunities offered by SCA, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire environmental and community stewardship and build the next generation of conservation leaders.
“SCA has changed my life,” said Meggett, who turned down a full scholarship pursuing a culinary arts degree to explore her interest in marine science and work with kids before finding SCA. “The path I have taken is definitely different than where I was going but it was for the best.”
The Student Conservation Association connects high school and college students with real-world job opportunities while making public parks, trails, cultural landmarks and other outdoor areas better, more beautiful places to live. It offers programs designed for a range of ages and a variety of needs, including volunteer opportunities in local parks, immersive high school internships and seasonal work at national parks, forests and wildlife refuges all over the country.
What the participants get back is skills they need to perform well in school, careers and life. Studies show that even after a single SCA experience, participants emerge with deeper interpersonal skills, a greater sense of social responsibility and stronger thriving skills, according to research by Search Institute, an SCA partner that specializes in discovering what youth need to succeed.
In New Jersey, Dodge Foundation funding supports SCA’s Community Program, which began in 1999 with a small crew that maintained trails in Hunterdon County. It has expanded to offer hundreds of high school students from primarily Essex, Morris and Hunterdon counties paid, six-week summer stints, building trails and restoring habitat in parks throughout the state. Throughout the experience, students explore green career opportunities, build leadership skills and learn about the environment through field trips, outdoor recreation and service projects.
“As a kid who benefited from and took advantage of any internship opportunity to get outside, I especially love this organization,” said Margaret Waldock, Dodge Environment Program Director. “The Student Conservation Association makes real, measurable improvements in New Jersey parks and leaves a lifetime impact on New Jersey kids. They have great relationships with state agencies and local non-profit partners, which is key to their sustainability as public funds for park projects dwindle.”
Last summer, about 100 individuals from SCA’s community and national crews — including about 40 paid summer high school interns — worked on conservation projects in 39 sites across New Jersey. They completed 50 hands-on service projects, increasing public access to parkland in 10 counties, including restoration of public lands devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
Crews work closely with partners ranging from the National Park Service and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to local park systems and community nonprofit organizations like Greater Newark Conservancy and Camden Children’s Garden. Project sites include the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Morristown National Historical Park, Liberty State Park and Eagle Rock Reservation.
This summer, SCA expects to hire between 50 to 75 local youth to serve on five community crews in Camden and at sites throughout Essex, Hunterdon and Hudson counties, according to Diane Stanley, SCA’s NY/NJ program coordinator. Additional teams from SCA’s national crew program are expected to work in Morristown National Historical Park, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and Raritan Canal State Park in Somerset County.
“We look for students who are passionate about the environment, and passionate about getting conservation or disaster recovery experience,” Stanley said. “Someone who is going to make the time to flesh out their application, which is quite thorough and includes an essay about their experience, interests and what they’d like to do. In today’s market, for a high school student to be paid for this work, it is competitive.”
In addition to keeping track of park improvements, another metric important to SCA is the work’s impact on participants’ lives, from individual growth to sustainable behaviors.
Stanley recalled one particular high school student working with SCA’s Newark crew last year who confessed to taking hour-long showers.
“After much discussion, she recognized you shouldn’t be in the shower for one hour everyday, that there’s a real water conservation issue,” Stanley said. “This came up as a direct involvement from the programming; she reported back to us that she thought about it and cut down her showers and stopped letting the water run from the faucet for a while. I’m thrilled about that. That’s an impact that will stay with her.”
To learn more about the Student Conservation Association's New Jersey program, including job and volunteer opportunities, visit thesca.org.
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