Corina Flores, 17, and Jonathan Ty, 16, students at Sweetwater High School, said they missed friends, working on projects and spending time outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. So when they found out about an internship that would entrust them with the task of revitalizing an outdoor community space, they seized the opportunity.
“Since I was so bored being home, I wanted to get out,” Flores said. “I like working with my hands, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to also work with the community.”
Last week, she and Ty spent their after-school hours carrying barrels of fresh soil and filling multiple flower beds that they helped build for a new garden at the First Christian Church in National City.
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The building skills they have learned are a component of the year-long internship that they and other Sweetwater High students have embarked on in the past year. Local nonprofits Olivewood Gardens and A Reason to Survive, or ARTS, launched the National City Teen Program, marking the first Resident Leadership Academy targeting community youth, which are multi-media training programs. weeks giving residents the tools they need to help improve their neighborhoods.
“We’ve been meeting with the guys since last fall and they’ve gathered all of these skills over the course of the year, getting to know each other and working together toward this community (construction) project,” said Jeni Barajas, Environmental Education Specialist at Olivewood Gardens. . “They have been excited to be able to do things in person. We still wear masks, but there are smiling eyes. “
The internship was funded by a grant from the San Diego Foundation’s Opening the Outdoors program, Barajas said, which supports nonprofits seeking to expand access to the outdoors, particularly in underserved communities and parks. Funding for these projects is even more important at a time when the population has spent several months locked up due to the pandemic, according to the foundation.
“The pandemic has affected the health and well-being of many Sandieguinos and OTO grants have increased support at a time of critical need,” Christiana DeBenedict, director of Environmental Initiatives at the San Diego Foundation, said in a statement.
“Access to the great outdoors for San Diego youth and families provides multiple benefits in the face of increased stressors such as closures, isolation, and education and safety issues. The Opening the Outdoors program aims to promote more connected and resilient communities and re-prioritize access to the outdoors for our historically underserved communities, ”he added.
The South Bay city, with a majority population of Latinos and low-income residents, has historically experienced challenges in safely and comfortably accessing the outdoors due to high levels of diesel pollution and lack of access to options. of healthy foods, Barajas said.
“National City is an underserved community with high rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity,” he said. “This internship has given them the opportunity to be outdoors and learn about good nutrition through gardening education and beautifying their community.”
Before the practical work in the church, the students spent time following community leaders and learning about topics such as land use, creating places, community involvement, and how to conduct site assessments.
“Students have also had the opportunity to develop their leadership by meeting people in the community who are doing these things, such as doing site evaluations and gathering community input to decide what to do to make their neighborhoods healthier and to help them. meet the needs of the community, ”Barajas said.
For Ty, leaving his home in the midst of the pandemic was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but he said having the opportunity to gain new skills and offer his free time to his community made it worthwhile.
“I felt better at home at a time when everything was online, but then when we started the transition, I felt more comfortable. So I’m glad I joined the program, ”he said. “We learned more about urban landscaping, which helped us prepare for the (construction) project, and these are skills that you wouldn’t normally acquire in school.”
The project is in its final phase, but passersby will have already noticed the changes to the building’s façade, as the students built and prepared flower and vegetable beds, as well as planting fruit trees and benches.
Each week, the church holds food distribution events for the public, serving about 120 people each time, said Tim Captain, pastor of First Christian Church, who has been working with students to prepare the space.
“This is more than just a face lift; this place is for the community. When it’s finished, it will be a better place for the community to learn and interact outdoors, ”said Captain.