As the temperature rose on a Saturday morning in August, volunteers gathered at the corner of San Mateo Boulevard and Southern Avenue to build a park out of a weed and trash-strewn lot here on the edge of Albuquerque’s International District. As part of the Nature Conservancy's Urban Conservation Program, this pop-up park’s aim was to add some green space to an otherwise blistering stretch of road. While neighbors were there to arrange the planters, fill them with trees and set up the benches and rain barrels, the work of constructing the planters and benches themselves began earlier with the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. This is where Janus Herrera comes in.
Janus Herrera is the education specialist for the Middle Rio Grande Office of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. She works with New Mexico youth through AmeriCorps contracts on conservation, preservation and recreation projects that build skills and develop job readiness. Weekly Alibi caught up with Janus Herrera raking up weeds and trash at the pop-up park build day to learn more about this often-overlooked educational opportunity right here in New Mexico. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: When did the building portion of this project begin?
Janus Herrera: It was a week from this past Monday.
Is this a regular summer program, or was this specific to this event?
We run different seasonal crews. The crew that was working on this particular project had started in the springtime and they just graduated yesterday. It’s a six-month term of service that they sign up for. During that time, they get job training skills, personal and professional development and then, upon completion of the program, as a part of the AmeriCorps contract, they also get a scholarship award to use to pursue post-secondary schooling.
How old are these young people?
Eighteen to 25-year-olds for our spring season. Our summer crews run 17 to 25.
Is this the capstone of the program or just one aspect of it?
Throughout the program, this crew worked on a lot of different projects. This was the last project they did of the season but they also did forest monitoring. They went to measure the diameter of trees, the health of the trees, look for signs of infestation, look at what other trees were growing relative to a particular tree. In this same neighborhood [the International District] on Earth Day, they did a tree planting event. On that particular day, there were over 100 trees that went into this neighborhood. That same crew came and helped load the trees, take them where they needed to go, plant the trees and mulch them in. This is typical of our program. We work with a lot of project partners to find a diverse spectrum of environmental and conservation-based projects that will give them life skills and, at the same time, improve the community.
Are these all young men? Are there women in the program?
We strongly encourage women to join because the conservation fields tend to be male-dominated. We like to bring young women in and have them build a fence for the first time when they’ve never touched a tool. The young women that worked on this project talked about how it was really empowering for them to build something with their hands because it wasn’t something they had done before.
These are all young people from New Mexico?
The vast majority are from New Mexico. We do outreach to the reservations. That is another group that we try to encourage to join because they are underrepresented in conservation. We do occasionally get members that come from out of state, but our primary focus is local youth and the local economy.
How many people worked on this particular project?
If you can believe it, we only had six youth that built all of this in eight days.
How many are in the program at any given time?
It varies a little bit. We just had five crews graduate yesterday. Between the five crews, there were five supervisors and an additional 36. Our summer crews will be graduating Friday. For the summer crews, it’s an additional 20.
Tell me about the scholarship they receive.
AmeriCorps participants receive the Segal Education Award as part of their contract. Because they receive just a living stipend, it’s really not a huge wage that they are earning. A big incentive is the scholarship which can be used at any Title IX school of their choice within the next seven years. So, they don’t have to use it right away if they are still exploring career paths. It doesn’t have to be used at once. They can also use it for some alternative programs like the National Outdoor Leadership School or the Boulder Outdoor Survival School if they are interested in getting their Wilderness EMT or their Wilderness First Responder certification. Maybe they want to become a backpacking guide or a white-water rafting guide. There are also unconventional paths they can pursue with their education award.
How many go into forestry or conservation work?
We have definitely placed some of our corps members with Fish and Wildlife and with the Forest Service. It’s hard to keep track of them after they leave, but just this past season, the folks that graduated yesterday, out of the 36, there were four that I can think of off the top of my head that said, “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do before I participated in this program and now this is just a calling for me. Now I want to go to school and study biology so that I can get a job like some of the people that we’ve worked with this season.” They observe our partners at these different projects and what they do in their line of work as part of their job. We also have a feature of the program called the mentor mixer where we bring in conservation professionals from a variety of fields. We had a bear and cougar biologist, a landscape architect, someone from the Forest Service, someone from Fish and Wildlife, Sarah Hurteau from The Nature Conservancy. They move between tables round robin and get to ask all of these questions—What did you study? What do you wish you would have studied? What do you like best about your job?—If they like, they can go with one of these folks and shadow them for a day, paid to learn out more about what it is that they do. Hopefully, that will help provide them a little bit of direction in terms of what might be a viable career path. It may be conservation and it may not, but we hope what they take with them is little bit more of a service ethic then they entered the program with, in terms of wanting to help the broader community. Even if they want to be an accountant, hopefully there will be parts of the program that they carry forward.
How can people find out more?
Our website is youthcorps.org. We are currently taking applications for our fall season.
What’s the deadline for that?
The season starts the first week of September. I will take applications until mid-August.