Green Works connects urban youth to nature through education and job training

Elementary students enjoy the fall leaves during the outdoor ECOS Nature Program in Fall 2019.

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

A local nonprofit is working to protect the environment starting with urban youth. Green Works, located at 607 E. 31st Street, provides environmental education and programming while preparing students for the future.

“We empower youth to protect our environment, contribute to the economy and create healthy communities, and all of our programming kind of funnels down that philosophy,” Program Manager Elaine Warren said.

Beginning at a young age, students have the opportunity to get involved at Green Works. The ECOS Program provides environmental education to elementary and middle school students.

The Outdoor Nature Discover Program kicked off on Saturday, Sept. 19. Each Saturday through mid-November, four classes – two in the morning and two in the afternoon – will be held at both the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center, 4750 Troost Ave., and Lakeside Nature Center, 4701 E. Gregory Blvd.

“With our outdoor nature programming, you know, it’s very hands-on, it wants to get the kids excited about being outdoors, being in nature,” Warren said. “I think particularly now, with all the students being virtual, it’s just so important to get them off screens and get them outside discovering nature.”

The first week’s lesson was about monarch butterflies, which migrate through the Kansas City area each fall.

An advantage to the ECOS program is that it can travel to youth in the urban core and start conversations about the importance of sustainability, the environment, and both physical and mental health.

“A lot of these kids don’t have those opportunities where they’re living in the urban core, and so we are just really pleased that we can provide that to them,” Warren said.

Green Works starts with a foundation environmental education and continues to cultivate good habits throughout high school and beyond through the Excelerate Workforce Leadership program. Students research careers, create a career plan path, write a resume and develop a LinkedIn profile, participate in mock interviews and go on job site visits.

“In our program with high school students, while we don’t teach specifically about the environment and sustainability, we offer like five to 10 minute green lessons with each class because it’s important to align what we’re doing in our career programing to sustainability,” Warren said. “We brought in speakers that talked about air quality in the home and other indicators of a healthy home environment, and the topic of how do urban families access what they need to create a healthy home was part of that conversation.”

Excelerate’s 25-week curriculum is informed by KC Rising’s Common Sector Competencies, a set of skills, mindsets and knowledge students need to compete for regional jobs. Warren said the difference between students at the end of the program, versus the beginning, is amazing to see, especially the level of confidence and communication skills gained.

Northeast High School students Trevon and Bao work with students from other area schools at Green Works Career Program in Fall 2019.

Students who complete the Excelerate program move on to internships arranged by Green Works locally. Students have recently interned at architecture firms, Ronald McDonald House, a local salon, Evergy, and Kansas City Young Audiences, an arts integration organization which uses the arts to teach life skills and classroom skills. Although this year’s internship looked a little different because of COVID-19, interns still managed to gain the typical office experience, interpersonal skills and conflict resolution experience.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity, particularly for the high school students to work somewhere in a related field,” said Janell Rinne, KCYA  Community School of the Arts Coordinator. “It’s just giving them that chance early on to see what’s out there… I think high school is a great opportunity to explore and pursue passions.”

Rinne said she doesn’t think high school is too early for an internship, and she encourages students to keep their options open as long as possible while gaining a variety of experiences.

One of those experiences available through Green Works is the The Green Ink Program, which coordinates planned community service projects for high school students and helps them accomplish requirements for their high schools or other groups like National Honor Society.

“A lot of those programs that we will coordinate, of course, are all geared with like-minded partners around environment and sustainability,” Warren said.

The goal of engaging urban youth living in the Kansas City Public School District with nature and sustainable living is essential to Green Works, which was founded in 2007 by Kate Corwin. Green Works now serves over 140 students per year.

“I don’t believe there’s a lot of other youth designated organizations that actually get youth into nature settings,” Warren said. “There’s a lot of programing around STEM education, of course, and nature and the outdoors is part of the sciences, but I think Green Works is unique in that we’re the only nonprofit that I’m aware of that’s offering this type of hands-on nature discovery to students.”

This summer, due to the pandemic, Green Works also beta tested a new Health and the Environment Internship Program for those interested in public health, healthcare and environmental studies. The outdoor internship program taught students how humans impact the environment, and how those impacts in turn affect our health. Students were exposed to careers in the growing fields of environmental health, sustainability, healthcare, and they met professionals working in those fields. Each week, they had two components to the program; a lesson with a guest speaker with an interactive project, and then an in-person field trip experience that related to the lesson.

“STEM professionals from Children’s Mercy, Mid-America Regional Council, Bridging the Gap, the Kansas City Zoo and BikeWalk KC presented to students about air quality, the elements of a healthy home, sustainability, water quality, recycling, alternative transportation, synthetic chemicals in consumer products and their impact on the environment and home, and much more,” Warren said.

Green Works also took advantage of its own STEM professionals. Board Member Laurie Brown, a conversation ecologist with Vireo, led a tour of the KC Water Services campus, and Roberta Vogel-Leutung, staff member and former chemist and water quality expert with the Environmental Protection Agency, taught students about native plants and the impact of landscaping decisions on water, pollinators and birds.

For those interested in entrepreneurship or owning their own business, the Green Works Lab will provide space to get creative, learn an entrepreneurial curriculum, create a simple business plan and try their hand at manufacturing sustainable products.

Earlier this year, students made hand sanitizer in the lab, which was sold in Green Works’ retail store, The Perennial Bee, which opened in August.

Queen, an alumna of the program who is now a board member, shows off Swedish dishcloths in the retail store.

“The lessons and what we do will tie back to some of the products in the store, so we will teach about sustainability and green in the classroom because our store is all about repurposing, recycling, reusing, being environmentally friendly.”

Staff and students design, source and sell the sustainable products including native plants, repurposed tote bags, reusable bottles, natural soap and bug spray, Swedish dishcloths, Ripple Glass recycling containers and high-quality used apparel. All the proceeds from the store fund programming for the students.

“We have a great space, between the classroom and here,” Warren said. “We should be able to stay socially distanced, and we do wear masks when we’re all in here together. We want parents to know that your kids can have fun, they’re learning, and we’re keeping them safe.”

The store is open First Fridays weekends in the Tower East District, with masks and social distancing. It will be open Friday, Oct. 2, from 4 to 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 3, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 605 E. 31st Street.

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