Cleveland nonprofit prepares students for future environmental careers

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When the COVID-19 pandemic closed recreation centers in Cleveland, Whitnye Long Jones got a call from Cleveland Metroparks: Would she like to help run programs for young people? Soon, her nonprofit, Organic Connects, partnered with Metroparks’ Youth Outdoors program to help urban youth connect with the outdoors.

“It was a good thing for our organization – we took over business because people were looking for things to do outside in COVID,” Jones recalls. “They needed organizations to connect with, and they connected with us.”

Organic Connects believes that nature helps urban youth escape the stresses of everyday life like children who fish in Rockefeller Park. Jones formed Organic Connects in 2017 to continue the environmental and youth work started by former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative! External initiative. Jones, who previously worked for Let’s Move! Outdoors until funding ended in 2017, the program did essential work in helping young people in urban communities experience nature.

“We consider [Organic Connects] be the legacy of “Let’s Move! Outside, ”Jones says. “When [Let’s Move! Outside] finished, everyone noticed it was a need, it was so impactful, and that just started the way I’m on right now.

Under the four pillars of environmental justice, education, recreation and engagement, Organic Connects runs programs ranging from environmental internships that help kids launch careers, to field trips that teach kids how survive in the open air.

In addition to helping city children to go out, the group also helps train young people in future environmental careers.

Jefferson Jones, director of operations for Organic Connects, says he enjoys teaching participants about fishing, bird watching, canoeing and camping, among other outdoor activities. He says he enjoys teaching children the physical and mental benefits of being outdoors.

Jones explains that nature helps urban youth escape the stresses of everyday life. “I just believe that the outdoors provides a natural sanctuary for everyone, especially people who experience stress and live in difficult situations,” he says.

Organic Connects field trips offer city kids the chance to get out like this family outing to Nimisila Reservoir in Summit County.Organic Connects field trips also offer families the opportunity to bond in nature. “We have this photo of a family who brought their one-year-old child,” Jefferson Jones said of a recent trip to the Nimisila Reservoir in Summit County. “He’s got that fishing rod in his little hand and it’s just, oh, it hits you in the soul, in the heart.” It is a fantastic image.

Reframing Engagement and Engagement with Green Networks (REIGN) is a one-year after-school leadership development program that helps students engage with environmental justice issues. The program challenges students to tackle real environmental issues, like mitigating plastic in waterways or improving the air quality where they live.

Through the REIGN program, Organic Connects also helps students apply for and secure internships with environmental organizations. Ultimately, says Jefferson Jones, the goal is to help students navigate environmental careers in college and beyond.

Tonya Messam is an example of how Organic Connects connects young people with employment opportunities. Messam grew up participating in Organic Connects programs and is now an administrative coordinator intern.

“That’s sort of all I wanted when looking for an environmental internship,” says Messam. “[I’m] helping the community, teaching young people and also networking while meeting so many amazing people with amazing stories.

Another of Organic Connects’ programs is NEO Nu Hydromatic Aquathon. This summer program, whose name combines the acronym of Northeast Ohio with the Egyptian word for water, teaches young people about water conservation, water quality testing and similar issues. . During the program, participants also engage in fun activities such as remote underwater vehicle driving and kayaking.

Whitnye Long Jones previously worked in the hospitality industry, but changed careers once she discovered her love for working with children outside.

“I was born as a compassionate individual, eager to connect with the earth to begin with,” she says. “This love for the community, this love for nature was already there, but there was always this desire for more. So I decided to change careers, and once I recognized my mission, that’s when the doors started to open.

Organic Connects hosts community events in July and August. Consult the organization calendar for more information.

This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEO SoJo), of which FreshWater Cleveland is a part, Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University , WKSU, and La Méga.

Andres Ibarra graduated in journalism from Ohio State University and intern at The Land.

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