Future conservationists help out at Heinz refuge

Elaine Chen and Adam Fofana are two of five high schoolers working at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for six weeks. They're restoring habitats with native plants, among their duties as conservationists for the summer.
Elaine Chen and Adam Fofana are two of five high schoolers working at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for six weeks. They're restoring habitats with native plants, among their duties as conservationists for the summer. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2014

At the beginning of a work week that promised hot, steamy days, five high school students put on bug repellent, yellow hard hats, gardening gloves, and work boots before Monday's shift at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.

For the next several hours, they pushed wheelbarrows full of water, shoveled soil, and tended to the native plants they added last week to the area in front of the visitor center. The crew members are in the middle of a six-week summer job that calls for them to work on projects varying from removing invasive plants to replacing park benches - thus the hard hats.

Anika Harris, a 15-year-old who attends W.B. Saul High School and aspires to be a veterinarian, enjoys her time on Heinz's nearly 1,000 acres because it allows her to interact regularly with wildlife.

"We saw Bambi," she beamed. And the crew befriended two garter snakes it encountered. The students named them Laquanda and Tyrone.

Every Friday, the crew goes on an environmental educational trip; last week, it went to the Philadelphia Zoo - which topped the list of Harris' favorite moments.

The program began in 2009, when the refuge partnered with the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit that aims to foster interest and careers in conservation by placing students in the nation's parks, exposing them to real-world environmental conservation efforts.

Jose Rubert-Zayas, 15, who attends Parkway Center City High School, is more interested in a career in business, but he said he wanted to get job experience to learn to be responsible.

Rubert-Zayas said he got his green thumb from his father, who likes to work out his frustrations in the garden. When his father is gardening, Rubert-Zayas said, "you can leave him alone, or you can join him."

He usually joins him. And he brought a favorite gardening technique to the refuge with him: talking to the plants.

"You don't have to give it a name or anything," he said. It may sound crazy, he said, but it works.

The five high schoolers are paid $7.25 an hour and work up to 35 hours a week.

So far, the high schoolers - and the sixth member of their crew, Lyndsi Gilbert, 19, a sophomore at Penn State Berks aiming for a career in wildlife management - have opened up 200 feet of fishing area, and cleared and mulched some of the refuge's 10 miles of trails.

At the beginning of the program, the crew was given a to-do list. It was completed in two weeks, said Mariana Bergerson, Heinz manager.

But there's always plenty to be done. A small staff tends to the nearly 1,000-acre refuge, Bergerson said, so the summer crew provides much-needed manpower.

For the third summer in a row, first-grade teacher Chuck Lafferty traded in work sheets and colored pencils for work boots.

When the Philadelphia School District made cuts to summer school, Lafferty was out of a job for the season. As a member of the Friends of Heinz Refuge, he learned the Student Conservation Association was looking for crew leaders, and he got the job overseeing the six young people.

Though Lafferty wasn't quite the age of the ideal crew leader - he's 63, and the program was looking to recruit 20- to 25-year-olds - he figured his 20 years of volunteer work at the refuge would make him adequately qualified.

"I truly consider it the best summer job I've ever had," Lafferty said.


CFabris@phillynews.com

215-854-5607 @CaseyFabris

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