This essay was contributed by Jack Sweeney-Taylor, Kestrel’s TerraCorps Community Engagement Coordinator for the 2018-2019 service term.
One of Kestrel Land Trust’s goals is to identify shared values and community needs that can be addressed through a connection with the land. As Kestrel’s Community Engagement Coordinator from last fall through this past summer, it was my task to find ways to meet this important goal.
As a former teacher in Holyoke, I’ve found the value of time outdoors for kids to be clear—sun, sweat, rustling leaves and animals, and space to play-out thoughts and emotions can all foster perspective, self-awareness, and learning. But finding time, transportation, and a collective reason for teens in Holyoke to visit a trail is challenging, even with Mount Tom and the Connecticut River close by. I wondered if other community groups also saw a need to close this gap, and whether Kestrel could help them. I wondered if collaboration like this would prove elusive. Fortunately, what I found was a series of meaningful partnerships.
I reached out to organizations doing work with youth in Holyoke with the aim of connecting more people to the land. To start, Kestrel’s two-year collaboration with Eagle Eye Institute offered an opportunity to make a bigger impact than either organization could on its own. Eagle Eye’s mission to empower “urban people, especially youth of color from low-income communities, to play an active role in caring for our environment” has guided their outdoor programs for 28 years, and inspired Kestrel’s support since 2017. Last fall, when Eagle Eye’s Program Director, Cass Pastorelle, described plans to expand an after-school program at Holyoke High School Dean Campus and branch out to other organizations this spring, I jumped at the chance to play a role.
By February, Cass and I were attending community meetings and making new contacts, and in April, Dean’s EAGLE Club launched its first two workshops with urban foresters from the DCR’s Greening the Gateway Cities Program, planting three trees on campus. All told, EAGLE Club had six outings engaging 24 high-schoolers, with additional help from staff at US Fish & Wildlife Services, Holyoke’s Conservation Commissioner, and graduate students with UMass’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
The students took away things about nature and also about themselves. In their reflections, they wrote comments like, “The shape or state of things in nature is beneficial to animals you wouldn’t think about, for example, a dead tree is home to moss, fungi, ants,” and “Once I get out of my comfort zone it makes me appreciate everything around me a little bit more.”
All of this was only possible with incredible support from Dean’s Adjustment Counselor, Associate Principal, and five faculty sponsors who volunteered time after school and on weekends.
Elsewhere in the spring, Cass and I connected with the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club to play a role in the Summer Transitions and Education Program (STEP) for middle-school aged kids, and found ourselves on the trail, and never far from water, with a group of 14 adolescents. We were amazed at how easily this collaboration
fell into place, and with a 15-passenger van, the Club gave us a passport to the Valley for July. Thanks to Jen Lapis, Tasha Daniels, and Anderson de Aza at USFWS, kids donned waders to collect tadpoles and constructed birdhouses at Conte National Wildlife Refuge Fort River Division in Hadley. They also tried their hand at clearing trails with maddox and rake with Kestrel’s Land Stewardship Coordinator, Eli Smith, at Well-Away Farm in Pelham. Justin Bresnahan, fearless STEP leader, noted the program’s “relationships built in the short time together, both youth-to-youth and staff-to-youth.”
Cass and I fortuitously fell into our shared objectives in Holyoke, and the collaboration became vital for each of us.
With time to compare goals, share resources, and make a plan, we forged a cohesive vision that encouraged others to join, and ultimately got nearly 40 kids out to nearby conservation land in the Valley.
Part of what I experienced also seemed unique to Holyoke and the Pioneer Valley. Even without Eagle Eye’s partnership, I found ready reception from the Care Center in Holyoke to co-lead a seven-week “Outdoor Photography” class with professional photographer Michael Zide, and collaborated with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire and Hampden Counties to bring nine Big-Little matches to Kestrel’s Story Walk at the Orchard Arboretum in Amherst.
Whatever the cause, the process of finding shared values—so integral to Kestrel’s efforts to conserve land—seems to flourish when given the chance: a lesson I will gladly take from my year of TerraCorps service.