Baltimore Young to Get Volunteer Work Making City Greener Under 50-City Plan

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BALTIMORE — In an effort to connect young people in this city to nature — and eventually to jobs in conservation and related fields — the Obama administration announced today that Baltimore has been selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Interior’s 50-city Interior Youth Initiative.

The initiative will ultimately provide volunteer opportunities to 10,000 to 20,000 young people in Baltimore — plus part-time, temporary jobs for 34 young adults — as part of a larger effort to provide training and work opportunities for 100,000 young adults on public lands through 2017, officials said.

Even though U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said the deal was in the works before the city’s violent protests over the police custody death of Freddie Gray, officials at the announcement drew links between the “challenges” the city has faced since then and the opportunities they believe will arise from the Youth Initiative. The effort in Baltimore is being spearheaded by the YMCA of Central Maryland.

“It’s not one person’s responsibility to fix the issues and it’s not one person’s responsibility to serve our kids,” said John Hoey, president and CEO of the YMCA of Central Maryland. “We’re all part of this.”

Hoey said a guiding principle behind the initiative — which will rely heavily on volunteerism — will be to give young people a sense of ownership and responsibility for the environment.

“We have a society where we expect others to do the work for us. We have to do the work ourselves,” Hoey said as young people from a number of Y of Central Maryland after-school programs looked on.

“We don’t always get paid for it, but we get paid in different ways,” he said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the initiative will help to pass along values of “teamwork, local pride, and social responsibility to the next generation of Baltimoreans.”

For youth service providers in Baltimore, the initiative represents an opportunity to get involved while the initiative is still being formulated and to potentially tap into government funds, even for existing programs. Twenty-six cities are being chosen to participate in the initiative this year, with 24 more to be announced next year.

“Our focus right now is to get urban youth involved,” said Devin Ray, wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s not reinventing the wheel, but looking at the infrastructure we have now and how we can best serve by putting youth outdoors.

“If you have programs up and running, that works a lot better because you have structure in place,” he said. “It’s just us seeing what value we can add to what you have going now, getting you connected with a potential funding source.”

Michelle Becote-Jackson, senior vice president of youth development and social responsibility at the Y of Central Maryland, said the work will range from forestry work to removing invasive species to planting trees and creating gardens.

While the initial phases of the project involve having young people “play, learn and serve” on public lands, the ultimate goal is to create jobs in those spaces, Becote-Jackson said.

The deal involves a $49,000 grant to BRANCHES (Building Resources And Nurturing Community Health and Environmental Stewardship), which already provides part-time employment for 14- to 21-year-old youth who live in Baltimore City public housing.

The deal also involves funding from a private company for two positions — a community coordinator and AmeriCorps coordinator — for two years.

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