In This Community, Nature Activates a Healing Power in Its Young People

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This is a guest post written by Michael Anthony Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia.

The Fairmount Park system is one of Philadelphia’s greatest assets, with more than 11,000 acres of greenspace spread across nearly every area of the city. It is a mecca for big events and a refuge for small moments of quiet. Fairmount Park is a favorite setting for family reunions and community gatherings, includes an extensive trail system for runners and walkers of every fitness level, and is home to more than 150 recreation facilities that host activities year-round for children, youth and adults. Fairmount Park also encompasses seven watershed parks that require ongoing and thoughtful stewardship to ensure the city’s rivers and streams are protected from erosion and pollution.

As former mayor of my hometown, I recognize the importance of Fairmount Park to Philadelphia’s vitality. Like any important asset, it requires a thoughtful deployment of resources to ensure its vibrancy now, and long into the future.

I see Philadelphia’s young people in a similar light. They are among our greatest assets and thus demand critical investments of time, attention and opportunity to ensure they develop the skills required to move our city forward.

The beauty of PowerCorpsPHL is that it marries the best of these two assets to manifest benefits neither could generate alone.

PowerCorpsPHL engages young men and women, 18 to 26, in AmeriCorps service aligned to Philadelphia’s environmental priorities. It provides a venue for young people who’ve experienced adversity to renew their sense of hope and exercise their talents in service to the city.

“PowerCorpsPHL is not a program, it is an amazing experience that has given me, and countless others, so much hope. I truly feel like I have a purpose, which is to do all I can do to help my generation rise to the occasion of becoming more than we are today.  I am part of a collective of people that share my dream of providing young people the insight and resources they need to soar.” —Kalef Jones, deputy climate manager, PowerCorpsPHL alumni, and 2017 Corps Network Corpsmember of the Year

PowerCorpsPHL members find value in nature because it literally provides the pathway to a new life. It is in the outdoors that corps members build community with one another, develop the courage to process trauma, and receive the support needed to reconstruct a vision for their future.

Being immersed in nature calls on PowerCorpsPHL members to step outside their comfort zone and rewards them for truly hard work. Corps members feel a sense of accomplishment when their fellow Philadelphians can walk a trail previously littered with trash or grown over by invasive plants. They are proud to watch children playing in spaces they’ve recently cleaned, painted and freshly landscaped. They understand their efforts to maintain green stormwater infrastructures has a direct impact on the City’s capacity to provide clean, safe drinking water to all residents.

Over the past five years, PowerCorpsPHL members have made significant contributions to Philadelphia’s environmental health.  They have impacted 5,000 acres of public land, planted over 8,000 trees, diverted more than 280 tons of waste from landfills, and completed 4,000 individual projects that maintain the safety, sustainability, and functionality of critical green stormwater infrastructure sites. Corps members also educate community members on the importance of watershed protection, restore historic houses and landscapes, and contribute to resolving environmental hazards to public safety and accessibility.

PowerCorpsPHL also opens doors of economic opportunity.  Corps members come to understand that the skills required of environmental stewardship double as building blocks for success in the workforce. Through their service, corps members are introduced to career pathways that call on them to exercise their leadership, apply their environmental knowledge, and expand their growing technical skills. In so doing, corps members build confidence in their ability to realize the long-term goals they set for themselves.

I am always energized when spending time around PowerCorpsPHL members, and the truly dedicated staff who support them. Two young men, in particular, have shaped my understanding of the program’s incredible impact.

I know Darius Epps by reputation. He embraced the hard work PowerCorpsPHL requires, relished constructive feedback, and was deeply motivated by any opportunity to make his grandmother proud. After a year of AmeriCorps service, Darius was accepted into a competitive apprenticeship with the Philadelphia Water Department. He wore his uniform proudly and took delight in coaching newer PowerCorpsPHL members interested in following in his footsteps.

Despite doing all that was asked of him, Darius fell victim to gun violence. His story stays with me, not simply because of what he accomplished, but because of what he inspired in others. When I met with Darius’s friends and fellow corps members, I saw in their eyes not anger and hatred, but a deep commitment to honoring his legacy. In the early days following his death, and in the months and years that followed, these young men held each other up.  They visited his grandmother and honored his commitment to progress by making progress in their own lives.  They found community and strength in one another that carried them forward.

Shortly after Darius passed away, I was introduced to Kalef Jones, then a third-term PowerCorpsPHL member who provided invaluable support to members of my administration working to implement the core principals of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. It is no surprise to me that Kalef is now an essential member of the PowerCorpsPHL staff. As deputy climate manager, he works closely with crew leaders to foster a sense of community within each new cohort, while also supporting individual corps members aspiring to meet the high expectations of PowerCorpsPHL service. In 2017, Kalef was honored by the Corps Network as a Corpsmembers of the Year.  In his acceptance speech, Kalef articulated what I believe is at the heart of what makes PowerCorpsPHL special.

“We are blessed to be entering a time where we can become the positive examples that we need for each other. The epidemic of violence is just as horrific as climate change, for if not attended to and resolved, it will continue to grow and cause problems of epic proportion.  In this world, we either build or destroy.  In PowerCorpsPHL, we are doing both. We are destroying negative statistics. We are destroying stereotypes. We are destroying stigma. And in their place, we are building and rebuilding relationships – with each other and with the environment – so that we can change the trajectory of our generation, and generations to come.”

People often say that nature has healing powers.  In PowerCorpsPHL, I’ve seen nature activate the healing power in young people, a power they nurture and reinvest many times over – into themselves, into their families and communities, and into the spaces they steward for those inspired to follow them.

To produce similar, transformative results for youth in your city, check out NLC and The Corps Network’s City-Corps Partnerships strategy tool, here.

About the Author: After serving almost fifteen years in the Philadelphia City Council, Michael A. Nutter served as the 98th mayor of his hometown Philadelphia from 2007 until 2016.

PowerCorpsPHL is a City of Philadelphia AmeriCorps initiative powered by EducationWorks.  For more information, please visit PowerCorpsPHL.org or contact Julia Hillengas, executive director, at juliahillengas@educationworks.org.