Los Angeles Youth Hit the Trail
It’s high noon on the Canyon View Trail at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SAMO). Many of the teens who are pruning yucca and other native plants that encroach on the trail seek relief in the scarce shade along the steep path that weaves down the mountainside of mostly wild sage and dense chaparral.
But not Andrew Hernandez, an 18-year old crew leader from East L.A.
Even though he boarded the National Park Service van before 6 a.m. for the 90-minute drive to the Circle X Ranch at the national recreation area, and has been on the trail for nearly three hours, he appears undaunted by the mid-August coastal heat.
“I love it up here, especially the silence,” says Andrew, as he swings the McLeod rake with a double-sided blade to clear the dry grasses on the mountain trail. “Trail days are the best.”
Andrew is one of 22 local teens who worked this summer in the Santa Monica Mountains, as part of a park service program called SAMO Youth to prepare ethnically diverse youth for careers with the agency. In addition to providing paid employment, the highly selective program introduces rising high- school seniors and recent graduates from high-need Los Angeles area schools to environmental careers through training in the outdoors, mostly at local national parks. This summer’s participants were selected from approximately 100 applicants.
Over the last eight weeks, the group of Latino teens have worked on a habitat project at Channel Islands National Park, installed new garden posts at Rancho Sierra Vista, kayaked on the Los Angeles River, and even dissected coyote scat.
A visit to César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, Calif., which commemorates the Latino leader’s role in organizing U.S. farm workers, was particularly meaningful to many SAMO Youth whose parents are migrant workers.
Before participating in SAMO Youth, Andrew said he did not realize that Santa Monica had mountains. “Mostly I see freeways from my home and hear sirens and helicopters. I can’t see the mountains or the ocean,” said Andrew, removing his black-rimmed glasses to wipe his brow while leaning on the rake.
SAMO Park Ranger Antonio Solorio, who manages the program and is himself the son of a migrant worker, said that the program is “planting the seeds of environmental stewardship. We are teaching young leaders in our community to protect and take care of our environment and preserve critical habitat,” he said.
For Andrew, a recent high school graduate who plans to major in civil engineering at East Los Angeles Community College in the fall, those “seeds” inspired him to help develop his school’s first Environmental Club and community garden after his first summer in the SAMO Youth program in 2016.
He returned this summer as a SAMO Youth crew leader, which he said has helped focus his studies and improve his grades. “I was glad to be able to show people the wonders of nature and the good we can do if we all work together to educate others about the natural environment we have in southern California,” he said.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, just 50 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, is the largest urban national park in the country. It encompasses more than 150,000 acres of mountains and coastline in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. As one of only five Mediterranean ecosystems in the world, the national recreation area preserves the rich biological diversity of more than 450 animal species and 26 distinct plant communities.
Graduates of the program have gone on to work at more than ten national parks throughout the country, according to Ranger Antonio, who emphasizes the importance of mentoring and admits he texts with SAMO Youth alumni long after the summer program ends. For example, he and other park rangers supported Andrew’s project by providing not only NPS resources, but also personal coaching and encouragement.
A 2014 SAMO Youth Alumni Survey by external evaluators at UC Davis School of Education found that most respondents indicated they had or were considering careers in the National Park Service (91%) or other environmental management related careers (85%). The evaluation also revealed that in spite of having attended mostly high-needs schools and predominantly coming from families without college degrees, nearly all the respondents (95%) attended college.
Two-time SAMO Youth participant Jocelyn Bravo, 17, was accepted with a nearly full scholarship at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania after writing an essay on environmental protection for her college essay. As the oldest of two children in her family, she plans to be the first in her family to earn a college degree with a minor in environmental science.
“I know I want to work outdoors even if I wake up sore from the hard work,” said Yesenia Melendez, 17. She plans to major in resource management at California State University, East Bay, and pursue a career in NPS Interpretation and Education. “It’s tiring, but so fulfilling to see that I can make a difference for my community,” she said.
That’s music to the ears of SAMO Park Superintendent David Szymanski, who addressed the teens, their parents, friends, and families at a poster presentation and graduation ceremony in mid-August. “For more than 100 years, NPS has reached out to get the best and brightest to work in our national parks,” he said. “With SAMO Youth, we are tapping communities where we hope to inspire the next generation of park stewards and employees.”
This project was made possible by a grant from the National Park Foundation through the generous support of GRoW @ Annenberg, in addition to funding from the SAMO Fund. NPF seeks support to expand the program to support more Los Angeles and Oxnard teens in summer 2018.