Wilderness 101 in Central Park

Teens gain an 'experiential education' through the Youth Leadership Program in New York.

Ashley Foglia likes to leave the structured grid of the city and feel lost amid the plants she's tending. James Segars keeps things positive on the basketball courts, where younger kids look up to him. Amanda Caminero wears a glowing smile, whether she's picking up garbage on a 95-degree F. day or leading a tour group from Taiwan.

Meet some of the teens behind the scenes in Central Park. For them, it's a place where their own growth is nurtured as they learn to be stewards of this man-made oasis of wildness.

Students in the afterschool Youth Leadership Program (YLP) and paid summer interns learn about the history and ecology of the park and serve as horticulturists, tour guides, even documentary filmmakers. More than 200 teens have participated in YLP since 2002, when the current program was launched by the Central Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that began restoring the park in 1980 and now largely operates it.

Recruiters keep an eye out for the oft-neglected student in the middle. "They're not on the dropout route.... But [many of them] need a different learning environment," says Terri Carta, the Conservancy's director of recreation and community programs. "[Students] are learning about restoration by doing it, or about the history of the park by learning to give a tour about it."

For more than 30 years, proponents of "experiential education" have developed practices centered on that idea of learning by doing, often in the outdoors and with a community-service component.

"Research has shown that the more learners are actively engaged in something that has some natural consequences – and they're allowed to experiment and maybe even fail once in a while ... – the better those learning experiences will be," says Pat Hammond, CEO of the Association for Experiential Education in Boulder, Colo. "They have to investigate and solve problems and take on responsibilities and be creative.... [They learn] to respect a variety of perspectives ... and students discover some of their own talents and leadership [skills]."

Melody Benitez has had a taste of all those benefits in YLP and as an intern this summer with the rock-climbing teachers. "I love doing team-building," she says. "I work better with others. Before, I used to always work by myself."

She doesn't live far from here, but until last year, Melody says, "I didn't know there was anything to do in Central Park, other than the playground." Now she's one of eight teen docents who are paid to give tours, which are free to the public.

"We did this workshop where we had to work on our grammar.... So I learned words that I've been saying wrong for, like, most of my life," Melody says with a laugh. Heading into her junior year of high school, she's proud of the role she plays. "I definitely take advantage of wearing this shirt," she says of the forest-green T-shirt that marks her as an official park intern.

Teens take pride in gardening

"A lot of times kids come into the program and they're very shy," says Vanessa Francisco, the youth development programs coordinator. "Their self-esteem really grows."

The students know their projects are important, particularly the 28 summer interns who are paid $7.50 an hour. Horticulture interns help shape the landscape in a particular zone and can return later to show family and friends their work. "It becomes their piece of Central Park," Ms. Francisco says. "The staff here, they can't wait for the summer," she adds, because the interns provide much-needed help.

One patch that teens can truly claim is the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner. The 3-1/2-acre wildlife refuge is closed to the public. But when the Conservancy realized it needed more management, it started ROOTS, Restoration of the Outdoors Organized by Teen Students. The volunteers remove invasive species of plants and put native ones in their place.

Ashley Foglia joined ROOTS last fall and is now a horticulture intern. Taking a break from weeding a bed of rhododendrons near a public pool, she says it was exciting to work in Hallett because so few people have access to it.

Her family in the Bronx didn't want her to work in the park, but, the 12th-grader says, "I can't be dissuaded." Because the news media report any crime that happens in the park, many people don't realize it's actually the safest police precinct in the city.

Not considering herself very social, Ashley had a shift when she met peers from around the city here. She told herself, "This is teenager-hood. Embrace it!"

Just down the path, her supervisor, Brian Conaty, is dripping with sweat as he plants bushes. He's one of the park's zone gardeners. "It's nice to have [an intern] who's really into it," he says of Ashley. He enjoys talking to her about "what it's like to have a job," he says, "and I learn a lot [from our conversations]. She's really smart."

On Fridays, the interns trek to educational and nature sites all around the city and beyond to do team-building and learn about environmental issues.

The budget for YLP and summer interns is about $100,000 a year, funded by grants and donations. Eight interns of the five-year-old program have gone on to work part-time staff jobs with the Conservancy.

Each fall, the young leaders do a project together. Last fall, they created a comic book called "A Park for the People," focusing on the diverse uses of Central Park over time. Nineteenth-century families brought children to the park's dairy for clean milk when city milk was tainted. The park was also once home to a herd of sheep. Visitors picked up the comic books free, along with other information and maps.

Capturing New York's stories on video

The same theme carried over into the spring with Project 843, a documentary that will be another year in the making. The number of acres in the park – 843 – also serves as a metaphor for the abundant stories the park has to tell and its cultural impact on New York and the world. Small groups of students will do all the filming and interviewing, and much of the editing, to create a series of seven 12-minute segments. They're also posting writings on www.project843.org, and the producers are looking for opportunities to broadcast the film.

"We treat them as peers – we really work collaboratively," says Antonino D'Ambrosio, executive producer of Project 843. He and coproducer David Ambrose teach the students media literacy, but rather than giving them a lot of technical lessons, they put them right to work with the high-definition video camera.

"The challenging thing to me is learning the angles of the camera and keeping it steady ... but I've kind of progressed," says Raven Perpall, one of three documentary interns. Last week, she interviewed people about fishing in Harlem Meer, the 11-acre man-made pond in Central Park. At first she wondered, "What if ... they're like, 'OK, get out of my face now?'" But she's found so far that everyone has responded positively.

Near the park's giant reservoir, Amanda Caminero puts down an edge-trimmer and takes off her gloves to talk about her three-plus years with the teen programs here. As someone who came with her mom to the park on weekends growing up, "learning the history was amazing," she says. "Every day I learn something new."

She recently gave a tour to a group from Taiwan and she feels it was the best she's ever given. "They were so interested, despite their barrier in English.... We created such a bond with them, we went out to eat!"

Amanda is a local ambassador, too. "I have spoken to a lot of teenagers that haven't been to Central Park at all. I tell them it's a wonderful place to be.... Some of my teachers, too, they want to know what is the history of Central Park." Even if she goes away for college, she says, she'll always be back to do more work or volunteering here. It's as if she's grown roots.

James Segars, the basketball intern, has also participated in virtually every aspect of YLP, commuting more than an hour from Queens. He plans to go into chemical engineering, but says no matter what he does, the skills he's learned from mentors and staff at the park will serve him well – particularly the patience he's developed. "Working in the visitor center, you have to have a lot of patience with people," he says, fingering the colorful rubber bracelets on his arms with sayings such as "Save Darfur" and "Respect."

"If you come to your job on your day off, you know you love what you do," he jokes as he leaves the refuge of the air-conditioned recreation office and heads back to the sun-seared courts.

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