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Organizations teach teens how to protect planet

Published on: October 01, 2009

Gig Harbor mom of four Victoria Purnell has a teenager who truly wants to save the world. Her 13-year-old daughter Nicky is obsessed with helping animals and protecting the environment, and Purnell has begun the process of looking for organizations that will help her daughter translate her idealism to action.

Several Puget Sound organizations offer parents like Purnell opportunities for their middle- and high school-age children to learn about environment protection and also gain some relevant job skills.

15-year-old Elyot Whitney, a sophomore this fall at Bishop Blanchet High School, spent his summer working as an intern at EarthCorps. Whitney found his paid internship through the Seattle-based non-profit organization Teens in Public Service -- TIPS.

TIPS is dedicated to developing future community leaders and last summer offered 57 teenagers the opportunity to work in various nonprofits all over the city. Whitney requested to be placed in environmental work. "I've always liked the outdoors and I'm interested in helping the planet," he says.

Prior to his internship, Whitney had done odd jobs including mowing lawns. But this was his first "real job" and he was eager to learn about how organizations run. Working under the supervision of EarthCorp's Administrative and Development Manager Keith Cousins, Whitney was able to gain office skills as he helped file and solicit items for the organization's fundraising auction. And he also had the chance to learn about the environment through his job out in the field, which included working on a mobile tree-watering crew and saving native plants by pulling up blackberry bushes, roots and all.

16-year-old Evergreen High School junior Hong Nguyen was a TIPS intern last summer with the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. "It wasn't until I started working with the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust that I started realizing the many problems our environment faces," she says. "I think that if more teenagers, more volunteers and adults knew about these challenges, our environment would be a better place to live in."

In addition, her internship shaped her career goal. "I've always had my mind set on becoming a pediatrician but, through the internship, I plan on becoming more involved in environmental stewardship," she adds.

Dawn Brevig, senior director for the YMCA's Earth Service Corps, says that more than 1,500 student volunteers participate in the YMCA program through service learning clubs in high schools from Bellingham to Olympia. The two desired outcomes for teens participating in the program, she says, are "confidence in their own leadership abilities and enhanced environmental literacy, including the ability to understand how environmental damage occurs."

Project for teens involved in the group range from planting trees locally to a trip this summer to Costa Rica, where participants helped protect turtles. Other Seattle clubs have started recycling programs at their schools and created green spaces. Roosevelt High School's club last year educated local coffee shops about fair trade and organic coffee and ran its own espresso stand at the school.

Organizations like Brevig's need volunteers to make the service learning opportunities for teens possible. New mom Ellen Robinson, a physical therapist at Harborview Medical Center, has served as a volunteer leader for teens working for the YMCA Earth Service Corps program. She was drawn to the program in part because of her love of the outdoors and passion for conservation.

Robinson says that working with teenagers has been an education. "The first thing I took back from my experience was how intelligent and mature these teens were," she says. "Many were leaders in their schools and passionate about the planet and our stewardship of it. They are confident and not afraid to speak up in front of their peers." She observes that this generation of teens wants to do more than just talk about environmental problems.

Wendy Church, Ph.D., is the executive director of Facing the Future: People and the Planet. The Seattle-based non-profit organization works to develop young people's capacity and commitment to creating thriving, sustainable and peaceful local and global communities. Parents who have a teenager interested in environmental stewardship should "find an area of interest to a teenager and work with that," she counsels.

For example, Church adds, "a teen interested in cars might want to explore building or understanding a biodiesel engine, and one interested in boating or other water-related activities might be interested to learn about the ecology of the Puget Sound and how everyday activities such as driving affect it."

Encouraging teens to move from their environmental ideals to action can directly benefit the teen as well. "Service learning is community service that is tied to what students are doing in the classroom," Church says. "The reason that Seattle and many other schools and districts require this is that there is a mountain of research indicating that service learning has a number of great effects on youth: higher achievement in school, less likelihood of ending up in prison, students are more likely to vote as adults, and others.

"It also gives teens a sense of purpose; we have seen firsthand with our program that previously bored or unmotivated teens get excited when they feel they can make a real difference in their community."

Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.


  • YMCA Earth Service Corps: provides opportunities during the school year to participate in a club and also offers intensive 10-day summer sessions that combine outdoor adventure and environmental stewardship with learning. 206-382-5013
  • EarthCorps: provides one-year-intensive programs for young adults ages 18 to 25 to learn best practices in conservation techniques. 206-322-9296, Ext. 101
  • Teens in Public Service: selects teenagers to work paid internships at a variety of Puget Sound non-profits, including several that serve the environment. Application process begins in spring for next summer's internships. 206-985-4647
  • Facing the Future: People and the Planet: Web site features a section called "Take Action!" that encourages students and adults to find issues they care about and choose projects that affect those issues. Also offer a book helpful to activist teens and their parents, It's All Connected: A Comprehensive Guide to Global Issues and Sustainable Solutions. 206-264-1503

Originally published in the October, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.

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