The Watershed Institute partnered on two environmental youth programs in Hightstown and Trenton, engaging about a dozen students in new water-related advocacy and conservation skills to share with their communities.
Participants in each program, which wrapped up recently, learned about watersheds, drinking water sources, flooding, stormwater, and natural landscaping known as green infrastructure. They also gained some valuable leadership skills, knowledge of local governments, and tactics for advocating environmental issues.
Some of them will share their experiences by assisting at the Juneteenth celebration in Trenton, the Watershed’s Butterfly Festival on Aug. 6, and the Latino Fest in Hightstown this summer.
For nine weeks, the students from Peddie independent school, and Hightstown and Robbinsville public high schools were oriented on municipal governments during the Hightstown Environmental Youth Leadership program. They learned the names and duties of their elected officials at the borough, county, and state levels. They met members of the Environmental Commission (EC), Hightstown Council, and a Hightstown Shade Tree official.
They toured the sustainability features at the Watershed Center and learned about non-porous surfaces, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure. As a capstone project, the participants explored pressing environmental issues, ranging from trash at town-owned beaches, to improving public drinking water and addressing lead contamination. Some of these posters included text in both Spanish and English to better engage their communities.
The Watershed worked with the non-profit NJ RISE, the Peddie School, and the Hightstown EC to launch and run this program.
Pri Oliveiri, the Watershed’s Outreach Coordinator, helped initiate and manage the Hightstown program.
“An environmental youth program focused on connecting youth to their municipal leaders and government adds another layer of impact,” she said. “To solve our stormwater and water issues, we all need to work together – government, public, private, young and old.”
Carole Cobos, a junior at Hightstown High School said, “the whole program was an eye opener because it showed the impact of choices and what is going on around you. I had no idea about water quality in places in Trenton, and how concrete makes parking lots much warmer and the area less inhabitable.
“I never thought it was an option to speak up to a town council; I thought you had to be a teacher or somehow else involved,” she said. “I also learned strategies on how to speak up.”
The Environmental Youth Leaders program in Trenton was a weekly after-school internship that ran from September to June for juniors and seniors in local high schools. Along with the Watershed, the youth worked with the Mercer County Park Commission and the non-profit Isles. They received training in water conservation, stormwater management, advocacy, and career skills.
The students took field trips, where they added native plants to a pollinator pocket at George Page Park and toured green infrastructure in Trenton Parks. They visited Baldpate Mountain – the highest point in Mercer County – to learn about topography and how water flows down to the Delaware River. The participants then led programs for 75 after-school students at the Capital Area YMCA and CYO Mercer County to train the next generation about the importance of water.
As a capstone event before the final graduation ceremony on June 9, the students donned hip waders and plunged into Rosedale Lake to help plant swamp milkweed, switch grass, and weeded two floating wetlands that absorb harmful nutrients. Mercer County Deputy Administrator Aaron Watson came to congratulate the graduates.
Of the original nine in the pilot program, three students from Trenton High School and one from Notre Dame High School completed the 32-week program. Students received a stipend from the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River.
“The biggest takeaway from this program is that we all have to take care of the earth,” said Alma Batista, 17, a junior at Central High School (CHS) in Trenton. “There is a lot of outside learning. It isn’t all on books or on a computer. There is a lot of hands-on learning.”
That sentiment was echoed by others in the group, including Janainisa McDuffie, 18, a senior at CHS in Trenton. “I recommend this program because of the trips and learning how to care for the environment. My favorite trip was walking around Mercer Meadows, looking at the plants and different types of grasses.”
She plans on studying environmental science at Kean University. “This program opened up a new career idea for me.”
Kelly Rypkema, Director of Environmental Education at the Mercer County Park Commission, said she applauded the commitment of the youth, some of whom will continue with the county as paid interns.
“These youth have earned their titles as leaders. They took what they learned and gave back, teaching the next generation about water and wildlife conservation. This was an ambitious program, spanning 32-sessions across the entire school year,” she said. “We applaud their commitment. We are so excited to see how they meet the next step in their careers.”
Keila Carrillo, 16, a junior at CHS, said teaching younger kids was her favorite part of the program. “It was heartwarming to see how much they liked learning about water and the environment. This is the inspiration for the next generation.”
Maya Benjamin said she enjoyed how the learning was combined with making friends and having fun.
“I think the high point was being in an environment where you can make friends, but also learn new thing … and also be able to share that with your friends and family and have a more conscious mindset about how our decisions impact the environment.”
Executive Director Jim Waltman said the Watershed is strengthening its outreach efforts to spread the word about flooding, polluted stormwater runoff, and other issues to younger generations.
“Engaging our youth in environmental science, conservation and public outreach is a vital part of our mission,” Waltman said.