Summer is a magical time at the Greenwich Audubon Center: Birds are nesting, flowers are blooming, and the Eco-Leadership Corps interns are learning what it means to be part of the conservation field.
“The Eco-Leadership Corps is an immersive high school paid internship focused on developing foundational knowledge and skills in local ecology, conservation education, and land stewardship,” explains Christian Alexander, senior coordinator of community programs at Greenwich. He’s helped lead the program since its pilot year in 2021.
Since then, it has grown significantly—all thanks to the dedication of staff and the generosity of local donors and community members.
Not only has the program doubled in length from four to eight weeks, but this increased duration has made it possible to involve the Eco-Leaders in even more of the conservation, restoration, and education work that goes on at the Greenwich Audubon Center. The 2023 cohort also got to enjoy an extra emphasis on professional development, from lessons on networking on LinkedIn to meeting and speaking with environmental professionals, including marine biologists, local legislators, and more.
For many of the students, the experience is transformative. “It was definitely something that you can't find online. And it's a very personal experience to have talked with these people and to connect with them in person […],” says Olivia Leppla, a rising college freshman during her time as an Eco-Leader. This experience has her seriously considering pursuing a minor in environmental science, or even adding it as a second major. “It's really […] opened my eyes to how much of an impact that certain [professions] have on the environment.”
Sky Scavo was part of the first Eco-Leadership Corps cohort, and returned in 2023 to lead the program alongside Christian. “[…] I feel like I gained a lot of good presentation skills, leadership skills, [and learned] how to communicate [and] schedule with the other counselors,” she says of her experience as an Eco-Leader and as the program lead. “I think [that is] really important.”
Another huge component of the Eco-Leadership Corp involved working with the Center’s summer camp participants. Each week, the interns split into two groups to brainstorm, design, and teach conservation-themed lessons that will be used by camp staff throughout the summer and in future years. In the process, they learned a lot about planning, presenting, and teaching lessons—and made real impacts on the kids they worked with.
For many of the Eco-Leaders, their favorite moments of the summer involved these lessons. One described a particularly rewarding moment where facts from a lesson he had taught were recounted by one of the campers an entire week later, much to his delight and surprise.
Another source of memorable moments was the restoration project they worked on throughout the summer. The Greenwich Audubon Center successfully fundraised for the restoration earlier in the year, and the interns were both excited and honored to be part of an effort to turn a largely empty 1-acre lot into a thriving Oak-Hickory forest and living classroom, where visitors can learn about the newly-restored ecosystem and the indigenous people whose forest management practices guided the project from signs designed by the Eco-Leaders themselves.
For most of the Eco-Leaders, it was their first time ever planting a tree.
Experiences like these awoke or reconnected the interns with their passion for the environment and being outside. “Actually doing things and interacting with the material and with the students […] re-inspired my appreciation, if not love, for biology,” says Henryk Zimecki. He had lost touch with his long-standing interest in biology and nature throughout his time in high school, but the work he did as an Eco-Leader brought it back. “Since being here, I’m seriously considering changing my major.”
Though the Eco-Leadership Corps takes place over the span of two months, the impacts it has on the interns who take part in it last a lifetime.
“The more I’ve learned about the program, the longer I've been here, the more excited I've gotten about it,” says Cass Lee, who applied to be an Eco-Leader because they wanted to make a difference in their community. “[…] The more I think about it, it really does fulfill something that is needed.”
Christian was pleased to report that at the end of the program, a strong majority of the interns said they not only wanted to work with the Greenwich Audubon Center again in the future, but that the program made them want to pursue conservation and environmental work as a career. “Having seen this program grow over the past three years,” he says, “There is nothing I am prouder of than the impact we are having on these teens and their futures through the Eco-Leadership Corps.”