(Cook County) – Thanks to a collaborative effort between the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Housing Authority of Cook County, Friends of the Forest Preserves and the Forest Preserve Foundation, 112 youth came together to celebrate their graduation from the Forest Preserve Experience (FPE) Program.
Launched with HACC as a partner in 2017, FPE is a five-week, paid summer internship that introduces high school-aged residents from the Housing Authority of Cook County’s (HACC) Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) and Public Housing programs to work and education throughout the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC).
Throughout the summer, HACC youth (crew members) worked on projects associated with conservation and restoration throughout the Forest Preserves. Time was also devoted to learning about the local environment where crew members had the opportunity to participate in a number of environmental enrichment activities, such as hiking, canoeing, and other nature-based educational opportunities.
“One of our goals at Cook County is to educate young people about the diversity of the nature which surrounds us,” said President Toni Preckwinkle as she addressed the graduates. “Now you know about the wetlands, prairie, savanna and forest woodlands in your backyards. You also learned about time management, accountability, completing a task, and respect for others – skills that will serve you well in the future. I hope that this experience will move you all to consider continuing to use those skills in fields like ecology and environmental science.”
FPE has continued to expand in terms of enrollment. Compared to 48 Crew Members in FPE’s 2017 class, 84 youth enrolled in the 2018 FPE class. This year’s class expanded even further to include 112 youth. The number of adult leaders has expanded as well from 9 to 24, all hired from the local communities.
This year’s selection process was especially competitive, with more than 400 youth submitting applications. This high level of interest led HACC to commit an additional $85K ($274,500 total) to hire another 32 crew members and 5 additional crew leaders. The two additional crews worked at Sauk Trail Central Woods (Chicago Heights, IL) and Sweet Woods (Thornton/Lansing, IL).
“By creating an opportunity for youth to step out of their comfort zones and take that all-important step toward adulthood, a summer job, FPE is creating a meaningful impact in our communities,” said Richard Monocchio, Executive Director of HACC. “This impact is why we were proud to be able to provide the additional funding necessary for the continued expansion of FPE. It is critical that as many youth as possible are able to benefit from this special opportunity.”
This year’s FPE class was made possible through a sustained collaboration between both public and non-profit organizations.
The Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) provided additional funding for this year’s class ($37,500 total) and access to six forest preserve areas spread throughout the south and western suburbs. FPCC also contributed staff and materials for various educational and recreational events. Participants met with and learned from conservation professionals from FPCC, participated in a Green Career Panel, and attended financial literacy classes.
“For many participants, this program is their first extended time out in nature and their first job. Those are wonderful doors to open for a young person, but it’s more as well: It’s an introduction to a possible career in conservation and environmental fields, a growing industry that includes environmental law, environmental advocacy, wildlife biology, forestry and more,” said Arnold Randall, General Superintendent of the Forest Preserves.
The Forest Preserve Experience is part of the Forest Preserves Conservation Corps, which has grown from a single program with 15 participants in 2005 to a collection of programs run by a variety of partners that reach out to specific populations to care for the natural lands of the Forest Preserves. Last year, more than 300 participants across Cook County provided more than 70,000 service hours. The FPCC contributes over $1 million each year to conservation corps programs.
Friends of the Forest Preserves (FOTFP) provided the staff and administrative structure to FPE. Crew leaders were supervised by FOTFP employees and FOTFP administrative staff members were responsible for interviewing and selection of the applicants.
“Friends of the Forest Preserves is highly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion and is intentional about working with a wide range of people to ensure those working and volunteering in the conservation arena in Cook County reflect the people that live here,” said Benjamin Cox, Executive Director of FOTFP. “The preserves belong to everyone and everyone should be given the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, recreate in, and help them. FPE is a wonderful way to introduce and ensure a life-long connection to preserves for these kids.”
Forest Preserve Foundation (FPF) also plays a crucial role, providing the gap funding ($71,000 total) necessary to support the growth of the program.
“In addition to providing funding for Forest Preserve Experience program, FPF supported a career day outing called ‘Touch a Turtle,’ Day” said Shelley A. Davis, Forest Preserve Foundation President. “Both the internship and supplemental exploratory career events give the participants a chance to see the variety of options in the green jobs sector. We are committed to helping the youth picture themselves in positions that build on the skills that they gained through the Forest Preserve Experience so they compete for jobs in the future.”
Organizations interested in partnership opportunities are encouraged to contact Holly Wallace, Director of Educational Programs and Partnerships, at 847-779-3585 or [email protected]. HACC households looking to enroll in programming for next year’s classes are encouraged to regularly check HACC’s human services website, beWELL.thehacc.org.