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 Connecting people with nature – Credit Valley Conservation’s youth programme

Emily Duncan (Photo credit ©CVC)

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) is a community-based environmental organisation, dedicated to protecting, restoring and managing the natural resources of the Credit River Watershed in Ontario, Canada.  As part of Inside Ecology’s ‘Connecting People with Nature’ series, Emily Duncan tells us more about CVC’s youth programme…

Picture this, a group of 20 or so 14-18 year olds who want to make a difference in our world and our environment.

CYC volunteers from Mayfield Secondary School after stewarding the Credit River (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

Conservation Youth Corps volunteers from Mayfield Secondary School after stewarding the Credit River (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

I grew up in the city but spent my summers and any weekend I could out in nature. I hiked, camped, canoed, and swam from age six, but you can imagine that when you live and go to school in a major city that you would have to travel quite far to connect to nature.

I fell in love with CVC when I was 14 years old. I wanted to get outside during the summer and do something that makes an impact in my community. I learned that I could volunteer with CVC at electrofishing events!

I had an amazing time. I learned so much about electrofishing and all the native fish in the Credit River and its tributaries. I met some very passionate and interesting people who worked for CVC. At one of these electrofishing events, a CVC employee told me about a really cool youth program they offer called Conservation Youth Corps (CYC). The following summer I signed up to volunteer with CYC!

It’s easy to get involved with CYC. The only requirement is to be a high school student 14 years of age or older and have completed grade nine. CYC runs during July and August each year and allows students to learn and participate in different environmental stewardship and restoration projects such as stream restoration, electrofishing, tree planting, invasive species management and more. In Ontario, each high school student is required to contribute 40 hours of service in their community. The CYC program allows students to earn up to 35 hours in a single week!

CYC volunteers from Turner Fenton Secondary School found a freshwater crayfish while restoring the stream at Upper Credit Conservation Area (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

Conservation Youth Corps volunteers from Turner Fenton Secondary School found a freshwater crayfish while restoring the stream at Upper Credit Conservation Area (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

The volunteer hours and the fun that students have outdoors have drawn more than 2,000 students to the CYC program over the past 11 summers. Only 28 volunteers can participate each week so there is often a waitlist. Volunteers are split into four teams of seven and are mentored and supervised by a Crew Leader for one full week.

During my first summer with CYC, I arrived on the Monday morning for training and orientation and I was already amazed. Here was a group of people that loved their jobs and were willing to allow us to join their world for a week at a time. It was easy to see the passion of the Crew Leaders and other community partners working to improve the health of the Credit River as we worked on different projects. CVC staff enjoyed working outdoors and with students, which were two things I could really relate to.

My first Crew Leader, Pam, saw the passion I had for being outdoors and learning about nature. Pam told me about another youth volunteer program that CVC runs during the school year called Frontline. Frontline is a leadership program for high school students where they can stay involved in environmental learning and projects, such as peer-to-peer training, workshops and job-shadowing events throughout the school year. Frontline empowers youth who are passionate about the environment to make a difference in their schools and communities.

Frontline members taking part in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup in the rain (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

Frontline members taking part in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup in the rain (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

High school students are often busy balancing school and life commitments, so Frontline has adapted to meet their schedules. Meetings or events are held only once or twice a month and members can participate based on their interest and availability.

Each year Frontline focuses on a new environmental theme or topic. An expert from CVC teaches about the topic and then Frontline members make this information more ‘youth friendly’ and we teach our peers and the community. In the past, we’ve had topics like water quality, migratory birds, and shoreline habitat. Last year we learned about lost rivers and stream restoration. Each meeting or event allowed us to learn about this topic, see real lost rivers in our watershed, take part in a stream restoration project, and lead a public ‘lost river’ walk to educate the community about the importance of river ecology. I taught my Girl Guide group and science class but we are allowed to pick any group that has students our own age or similar. This is a great way to get people understanding environmental issues, and make people passionate about getting outside to take action and help!

Frontline allows high school students to take responsibility for new tasks, lead interactive workshops, educate themselves on environmental issues and get their friends involved. This peer-to-peer format is empowering because we gain real skills that we can’t learn in a classroom.

Frontline members walking into site to plant native plants along the stream to prevent erosion at Upper Credit Conservation Area (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

Frontline members walking into site to plant native plants along the stream to prevent erosion at Upper Credit Conservation Area (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation)

My dedication to connecting with nature and helping others connect with nature continued when I joined the Frontline Steering Committee (FSC). This group of Frontline members dedicate a little extra time to help organize and lead Frontline meetings and events. We act as mentors for other high school students and work closely with the CVC staff who oversee the Frontline program. These staff, Keren and Adam, really make being part of Frontline what it is – fun and rewarding. Through this environmental leadership program, high school students work on many different interpersonal skills while learning about and connecting to important environmental issues facing the Credit River watershed.

Some of the skills I have gained through Frontline include advertising events, posting on Facebook, Twitter, creating and leading icebreakers and team building events, leading events, photographing events, interpreting scientific information to make it youth friendly, participating in peer-to-peer training, mentoring younger peers and public speaking. Depending on the level of involvement with Frontline and larger community, youth can also earn an EcoAmbassador certificate to highlight their contributions!

My involvement with CVC’s CYC and Frontline programs really snowballed from that first electrofishing event and I couldn’t be happier. My time as a Frontline and FSC member allowed me to work on my leadership and communication skills as well as meet other students in my area that are passionate about getting outside in nature and doing something meaningful to improve the health of the Credit River watershed.

That point is so important to me and is also highly stressed within each of the volunteer programs. The students aren’t given busy work or tasks that are low priority and low risk. All of our work is impactful, important and allows us to connect with the task at hand in a unique way. It’s truly a one of a kind program and I couldn’t have been more pleased to be a part of it.

Header Image: Emily Duncan exploring the watershed in a field of sunflowers this past summer (Photo credit ©Credit Valley Conservation).

About the Author: Emily Duncan is an active volunteer with Credit Valley Conservation and Girl Guides of Canada, and was her high school’s student council Prime Minister. She was awarded CVC’s Young Conservationist Award in 2017, the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award in 2016, and the Silver Duke of Edinburgh Award in 2015. This past summer Emily worked for CVC as an Intern to support CYC. Emily is a first year student attending York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Further Information:  Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) is a community-based environmental organisation, dedicated to protecting, restoring and managing the natural resources of the Credit River Watershed. Established by the provincial government in 1954, CVC is one of 36 Conservation Authorities in Ontario, Canada. As the primary scientific authority for the watershed, CVC works in partnership with municipal governments, schools, businesses and community organisations to deliver locally-based programs. You can find out more via the website HERE.