Helping Teens Help the Environment

By Matt Baker

There are about a dozen teenagers in the room chattering excitedly, with more filtering in. Their voices echo off the walls since the space is still sparsely decorated; there are some plantings by the window, crafts along a ledge, and large sheets of paper up on the walls with the group’s goals. Be safe. Be social. Step out of your comfort zone. Take initiative.

This is the Green Creation Crew, a program funded in partnership by the YMCA of Metro Chicago and After School Matters. For six weeks this summer, teens from all around the city took part in this STEM program with a focus on energy and sustainability. They worked in teams to develop and execute environmental efficiency plans—pitching sustainable improvements to “clients,” actually making those improvements and then assessing their work afterward.

The YMCA’s mission is to develop strong children, families and communities via academic readiness, character development, violence prevention and fitness and healthy living. The Green Creation Crew addresses each of these.

Before ever going into the field, the teens learned about sustainability and energy in the classroom, which goes toward the academic readiness portion of that mission. During one hands-on lesson, they experimented with small scale wind turbines to try and find the most efficient design.

The program also makes use of years of research into social-emotional learning as a way to address character development. One plan of action for the teens is improved social skills, manifesting in setting their own goals, being able to problem-solve and working as a team.

Violence prevention has long been a tenet of the YMCA’s mission, but perhaps not in the way conventional thinking would have it. “The Y is not just about getting kids off the street,” said Kenny Riley, the Youth and Teen Advisor at YMCA Metro Chicago. “One of the main focuses in this program is that we’re creating a community-friendly space. We talk a lot about how a space can bring people together, can build up relationships in the community and reduce crime.”

For fitness and healthy living, the teens learned how to grow their own food. But healthy living means preserving the environment as well as the body; the main purpose of the Green Creation Crew is to help the teens understand how to make the planet healthier.

The youths also partnered up with grad students at the Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy (SISE). SISE is an intensive workshop hosted by the University of Illinois-Chicago. For the past six years, students have come from all over the country to cooperate in a tight-knit, diverse and energy-minded program conducted by career professionals.

Among other collaborations, the Green Creation Crew and SISE cooperated on a mock community improvement session. They broke into smaller groups, with teens partnering up with the grad students. Though they were only conducting thought experiments on ways to improve the environment, the session drew from real-world experiences. Some of the teens live near Bubbly Creek—the notorious arm of the Chicago River that, according to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, used to belch gas as a byproduct of the animal waste and effluent dumped in by the stockyards.

The slaughterhouses are all gone, but Bubbly Creek remains an undesirable sight. “They talked about how that creek was always smelly and disgusting and decided that what they wanted to do was help to clean it up,” Riley said. “And the SISE students learned a little bit about the specific things that are going on around the community, because some of them are coming from around the country.”

That particular group proposed planting a specific strain of mushroom whose roots would dig into the soil and extract the pollutants and bacteria. “[The teens] got a chance to learn some of those concrete things that they might not have otherwise learned and it was very specific to their community,” said Riley, who recalled one teen that expressed a desire to go out and actually plant the mushrooms. “Even though that was a mock activity, it had an impact on them.”

Another teenager joined the program begrudgingly—in part because his friend was doing it but also as a way of escaping the crime that had recently cropped up in his neighborhood. “Toward the end of the program, he was one of the first people coming on time,” said Riley. “He was engaged in a lot of the lessons and really showed a lot of growth.”

Tim Benedict, a SISE alum, co-developed and instructs the members of the Green Creation Crew. Having studied and worked on various agricultural projects, he sees many benefits to rethinking how we handle farming in the Midwest.

“Hydroponics are great. You can do it anywhere as it is resource efficient,” said Benedict. “But the soil here is some of the best in the world and we’re growing cattle feed. It would be great if we could have more diverse production.”

In the end, urban agriculture became central to the program. The teens worked on three different community gardens: one at Libby Elementary School in Back of the Yards, the McCormick Tribune YMCA in Logan Square and another at the new YMCA Metro Chicago headquarters in the West Loop. Only some of that work involved getting their hands dirty, however. The teenagers first interviewed representatives from the host sites to determine what was needed at the gardens. They then consulted YMCA staff and experts about what would be the best design. Two action days at each location ensured that plans were enacted, that extra volunteers were on site and that there were enough jobs for everyone.

The Libby garden was developed a few years ago but had become overgrown. “There’s a front bed that was just straight up dirt,” Riley said. “They added new plants and made the general entrance space more attractive.” The school has a program for autistic youth, so the Green Creation Crew added sensory elements to the garden, including wind chimes and herbs and flowers with stronger aromas.

The McCormick Tribune YMCA runs a community garden open to the neighborhood that was also well established. An interview with the person running that garden space identified a couple of key areas that they could improve, including a rat-proof compost bin which the teens built from scratch. At the YMCA Metro Chicago headquarters, they planted vegetables and two pear trees. The hope is that the harvest from that garden space can be used by the early learning program that starts up in the fall, both as nourishment and a teaching opportunity.

This past April, the YMCA of Metro Chicago cut the ribbon on their new, 60,000-square-foot headquarters in the West Loop. The YMCA Center will serve as the base for the charitable association’s Chicagoland operations. But there’s more going on behind the unassuming, brick façade. YMCA Metro Chicago will use the building as a laboratory, where the subjects of research are those core values in their mission and the concentration of the Green Creation Crew—academic readiness, character development, violence prevention and healthy living.

The YMCA Center features the Learning Institute, an 8,000-square-foot conference and convening space on the seventh floor where YMCA staff can come together with educators, social service organizations and community members. “The YMCA is one of the largest non-profits, and we want to be able to give back to the non-profit community,” said Riley. “So this is a meeting space that people can come to and further youth development work.”

The Y is actually one of the largest providers of early learning in the city, so the first two floors of the building are home to the Early Childhood Demonstration Center. This is more than a daycare, however. The classrooms feature unobtrusive observation rooms so that staff, parents and youth development partners can gather research.

A demonstration kitchen, still awaiting funding, will provide hands-on nutrition education with a focus on meal planning and healthy eating. And a teen-centered “Opportunity Center” on the second floor focuses on adult mentoring, parent and family workshops and peer group activities to help families learn ways to reduce stress and support positive development.

Much of the basis for this research comes from the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, a Michigan-based organization. After years of studying summer camps and after school programs, the Weikart Center created a youth program quality assessment tool that other organizations can use to measure the performance of their own programs. And it’s rigorous; during a one-hour period of observation, YMCA staff expect to see about 80 different indicators.

“We want the youth in this program to learn about sustainability and energy and gardening and gain all those specific skills, but we also recognize that what we’re trying to do is help them to be successful adults in the future,” said Riley. “We put an emphasis on working together, being able to collaborate and communicate your ideas and your needs to the team. It’s all purposely embedded into the curriculum.”

Though the inaugural summer session of the Green Creation Crew has concluded, there will be a fall session beginning at the end of September and a spring session next year. Different seasons bring different topics, but the program will continue to focus on STEM and sustainability.

Photos: YMCA Metro Chicago

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