Kids on the program clear phragmites from the water. Photo: Kate Abrams.

Six weeks ago, things weren’t looking good for one of Prospect Park’s youth summer programs.

Funding for the Woodlands Youth Crew program — which normally runs every year — had fallen through due to the pandemic. It was early July and Prospect Park Alliance Natural Resources Crew Youth Programs Manager Kate Abrams was already calling returning teens to let them know it wasn’t happening.

But at the last minute, New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital came to the rescue with a grant. That grant has allowed the Alliance to provide six weeks of employment to a crew of 22 local high school students, including children of front-line health care workers.

“I was able to call back and tell them, OK, we got the money. So if you’re interested, let me know. It was such a game changer,” Abrams said.

Kate Abrams (in the Staff shirt) works along the fence in the woodlands with teens from the program. Photo: Mary Keebauch.

A huge project

The generosity has allowed a crew of teens aged 16 to 19 to spend the last six weeks working on a major project in the Ravine, one of the core woodland areas in the park that underwent renovations about 25 years ago. 

After the renovations, a 10-foot-tall fence was left up, leaving an ugly scar on the landscape. The teens’ job has been to take the fence out and build a new one, while also doing erosion control and clearing invasive species. “It’s a huge, huge project,” Abrams said.

This is the very last week of the program, but Abrams is optimistic that they’re going to get it done by Thursday. “Never underestimate the Woodlands Youth Crew,” she said. “I was worried — it’s a lot, but they just dug in, literally. I think we’re going to finish it. I’m really optimistic.”  

A before photo of the work area in the core woodlands of the park. Photo: Supplied.

Abrams has been working on the Woodlands Youth Crew program for three years, and said this year has been a little different than normal due to the pandemic — wearing masks and constantly sanitizing tools. 

But the fact they were even able to do the program was exciting, and provided routine and social networks that have been missing due to schools going online. The teens are paid, but Prospect Park Alliance said it could not release their salaries.

“I think being able to work outside, dig in the dirt, talk to new people — I can see people brightening up, but that’s just me,” Abrams said. “Especially after the first 2 weeks, everyone starts loosening up and joking around, working towards a goal, and they can see the results.” 

Hard work, but it’s worth it

Aiden Jean-Baptiste, 18, returned to the program this year as a peer leader after joining the Woodlands Youth Crew for the first time in 2019. 

He said he first started out working on Excel sheets in the Park Alliance office, but then got the opportunity to intern in the park — with the warning that it was “hard work.”

Aiden Jean-Baptiste, peer leader, seen in the black mask during a meeting. Photo: Mary Keebauch.

Jean-Baptiste said his first day definitely lived up to that warning, but day by day he found himself opening up. “You start to get used to the physical work, get used to going to work and sweating, and eventually going home with dirt all over you. And it doesn’t bother you as much.”

He said the summer program has also taught him valuable life skills like discipline and taking responsibility. He’s currently studying business and accounting at college in New York.

“One of the best things is, it’s a fulfilling job. When you go home, or the season is over, you are like, ‘I actually made a change.’”

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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