Lavaughn Price Jr., Charles Holiday, Kelvin Payton, Wasurut Vihokrut and Joel Ortiz spent four weeks in the Verde Valley as participants in the LEAF Program, mapping invasive plants, working on archaeological restoration projects and fencing wetlands.
Like their predecessors, a group of four girls who came to the Verde from New York City last year, Brooklyn teacher Charles Holiday and New Haven, Conn., high school student Lavaughn Price Jr. left with a completely different view of Arizona and the Verde Valley than the one they came with.
CAMP VERDE - When you are trying to save the world, you take help when you can get it.
And saving fragile landscapes, such as those surrounding desert streams, need all the help they can get. That is the reason groups working on projects to save the Verde River have been so grateful over the last couple of years for the work provide by participants of the LEAF Program.
The LEAF program, which stands for Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future, provides Paid summer internships to young people from inner city schools, who are interested in careers in environmental sciences and related fields outside their comfort zone.
Sponsored by the Nature Conservancy, with funding from the Toyota USA Foundation, the program teaches best environmental practices and leadership skills to some 200 students assisting conservation projects in 22 states.
Last year three young women from environmentally based charter schools in New York City spent a month on the Verde mapping stands of invasive plants and helping with Project WET, a water education program for elementary school kids.
This year it was four high school students from Common Ground High School, an urban farm and charter school in New Haven, Conn., who were sent west to a world none had experienced -- one that turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
Lavaughn Price Jr., Wasurut Vihokrut, Kelvin Payton and Joel Ortiz, along with their mentor Charles Holiday, a teacher from Brooklyn, spent this July battling the heat and discovering that Arizona, and the Verde Valley in particular, is nothing like their preconceived notions.
"I was surprised. I thought it was all desert and cactus and snakes, but there are mountains and pine trees. It is as diverse as it is beautiful," said Vihokut, who emigrated from Thailand and hopes to pursue a career in environmental engineering.
For all four of the college-bound students the experience was also an opportunity to see if environmental fieldwork is something they would consider as a career.
"I don't know if it's what I want to do in the future. I always thought environmental science was something where you sat in a lab watching daisies grow. But it turns out it's nothing like that," said Ortiz, who also said he remains focused on career in forensic science.
Over the last month the four "Razor Leafs," as they called themselves, have helped build and remove fences on TNC property, participated in archaeological restoration for the National Park Service and, like their predecessors, fought invasive plants, here and in Prescott.
But it wasn't all work either. In their down time they had an opportunity to kayak the Verde River, visit the Grand Canyon, tour Jerome, ride the Verde Canyon Railroad and hike the red rocks.
"Arizona is nothing like the press says it is. The land is incredibly beautiful. There are stars in the sky. The people are generous and friendly, and I am leaving thinking I'd love to come back," Holiday said at a send off dinner last Thursday.