Internships with a touch of green

08/01/2014 1:00 AM

08/01/2014 6:00 AM

Brandon Burdick had one heck of a job this summer.

While many teens lined up work lifeguarding, mowing lawns or flipping burgers, Burdick helped round up and tag Canada geese, taught younger children about the tiny creatures that inhabit the banks of a lake and took on landscaping projects using native plants. He even primed his handyman skills on a storage room building project.

“I worked a lot with my hands,” said Burdick, a 16-year-old about to start his junior year at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.

The backdrop for Burdick’s work was the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center at 4750 Troost Ave. It’s 10 acres of gardens, wetlands, walkways and wildlife in urban Kansas City operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Burdick’s $9-an-hour summer job was a direct result of an innovative internship program designed by Green Works, a Kansas City nonprofit that combines environmental education with workplace opportunities for urban high school students.

Since Green Works launched in 2007, 140 youths have participated in its core two-year program, said founder and president Kate Corwin. Relying on teacher recommendations, neighborhood groups, churches and word of mouth to recruit, the organization works with about 40 students annually, including about 20 freshmen and sophomores who are fresh to the program.

Students are required to abide by rules laid out in a learning contract they must sign. To avoid after-school conflicts, classes are held two Saturday mornings a month, and students receive a stipend to cover transportation costs. Very few students drop out, Corwin said.

At first glance, Green Works doesn’t seem much different from many other science education organizations locally and around the country that work with youths to promote recycling, conservation and other environmentally friendly projects.

But Green Works’ mission goes deeper. The first year of the program mixes classroom instruction and experiments with field trips and hands-on projects. Students talk about the urban forest, water issues, ozone levels, recycling and even sewer projects.

The second-year class, called Green Future, is more intriguing. Students are taught money management skills and learn about career opportunities in the green economy. They draft a resume, take part in job shadowing and participate in skill evaluation exercises, including one that requires them to develop three green-industry career paths as a way to broaden their education and workplace aspirations.

The internship program is Green Works’ crowning achievement. The nonprofit raises the funds — about $30,000 this year — to pay the interns, who can work up to 120 hours each. The money, Corwin acknowledged, is one of the hooks to the program and helps cement its value to students and their parents.

“The internships are incredibly, incredibly important,” said Corwin. “If the kids weren’t working in our internships, they probably wouldn’t be working.”

Corwin believes Green Works is the only environmental organization in the country taking this classroom-to-careers approach.

This summer, Burdick and 11 other interns started in June and worked for about six weeks. Besides Burdick and two other teens at Discovery Center, students worked at the Kansas City Zoo or other area nature centers.

Heather Shellenberg, one of the supervisors at the Discovery Center, talked of the “enthusiasm and energy” that all the Green Works interns brought to their jobs. It’s amazing, she said, to watch them blossom.

Burdick said his summer experience was an eyeopener because it “gets you outside your comfort zone and makes you think more broadly.”

Though hoping to major in computer science in college, Burdick can also see himself studying biology and other environmental sciences. He is already looking forward to interning again next summer.

Corwin hopes working with mentors and getting workplace experience will lead to educational opportunies and jobs down the road for her teens. And as they grow older, she hopes her students will become more informed and involved in their communities and be better stewards of the land.

So far, the results have been encouraging — behavior toward the environment has changed, science test scores have increased, all participants have graduated from high school and many have gone on to college.

Corwin is proud of one other result: Two Green Works graduates are now working for their former summer employer.

“One of the things we at Green Works are trying really hard to do is not to let our kids down,” said Corwin.

That’s a challenge her entire organization embraces every day.

To reach Steve Rosen, call 816-234-4879 or send email to srosen@kcstar.com.

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