SACO — This summer, three Chicago teenagers are trading in skyscrapers for blueberries and black flies. 

Tatyanna Redmond, Danyell Myles and Mikia Robinson are all rising high school seniors at the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago, Ill. The three young women received paid internships from The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program, or LEAF, to do trail work at the Conservancy’s Saco Heath Preserve from June to August.

The main difference they notice between Chicago and Maine? 

“They don’t have sidewalks here,” said Robinson.

“And it’s dark and creepy at night,” Redmond added, spurring stories among the girls about what lurks beyond the streetlights.

Saco Heath, which is protected by the Nature Conservancy, a global conservation group, is the southern-most coalesced domed bog in Maine, formed as an ancient pond slowly filled up with sphagnum moss. The heath is home to several rare plant and animal species, such as the endangered Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly. The Conservancy has hired the LEAF interns to restore the trail so visitors can continue to safely explore this rare landscape.

This is the first year that the LEAF program internships were offered to students in Chicago; before, the program only existed in New York City. Annie Santoro, the Conservancy’s office administrator in Chicago, is one of the people who brought the LEAF program to the city. She says they have already employed six interns.

Students at Al Raby need a minimum of 40 hours of service learning to graduate. 

“I already have 105,” Myles said.

She spent a lot of those hours cutting invasive species at a park near Chicago, she said, but there are many things students can do to receive learning hours, such as working in the school’s garden or winterizing people’s homes.

All three young women were eager to bring their passion for environmentalism to Maine. At Saco Heath, they are restoring the eroded trail with gravel and replacing a rundown boardwalk, piggybacking on the work of a Student Conservation Associates crew that worked there during the early summer.

“I think our work is really impacting the visitors,” said Redmond. “They’re happy we’re building. It impacts them the most.” 

“Hikers always give us compliments,” said Robinson.

The work “really gives (people) the chance to see the whole forest,” said Myles, “not just look at the trees from the outside.”

On July 17, the girls worked on constructing the deck for the new boardwalk, carefully arranging the multicolored decking boards into an intricate pattern before screwing them in with power drills. Matt Coughlan, their Nature Conservancy Trail crew leader, watched proudly as they worked.

“Correct Deck donated all these boards to us, but they gave us a really random assortment of colors,” says Coughlan. He chuckled as the girls meticulously laid out the boards into the complex pattern. “We’re trying to make them as aesthetically pleasing as possible.” 

“I love the work,” said Robinson. “I’m interested in doing engineering or construction when I grow up, so I love using the drill.”

Robinson drilled in the decking as Myles and Redmond laid out the boards, spacing them evenly and always checking the angle to make sure the boards were parallel before moving on. Coughlan expected that they’d reach the end of the section of boardwalk by the end of that week.

“I originally thought this is where we’d finish by the end of the summer,” he said with a grin.

But as quickly as the girls adjusted to the environment and the work, they still have a little more acclimating to do before they are full-on Mainers. At lunch that Tuesday, the three dashed back to the air-conditioned car of their mentor from Al Raby, Amani Abdur-Rahman, to escape the heat. Redmond seemingly busted out dance moves as she sped down the trail.

“I run, jump, squat ”¦ anything I can to get rid of the bugs!” she said.

Right on cue, Coughlan picked a large June bug off of the van and pretended to eat it on Abdur-Rahman’s command, much to the delight of all parties involved.

After lunch, the girls traveled out to the heath to pick blueberries. Redmond critically examined the derelict old boardwalk that extends out into the heath, offering her opinion on its condition: “See, they only put one screw on each side, and none in the middle. And the spacing is way too wide. That’s why it’s so bad.”

All the girls say they will miss Maine after they return home in August.

“Maine is better because people here are so respectful,” says Robinson.

Redmond agrees, “People here always speak. In Chicago, you just get dirty looks.”  She sighed. “I love being out here ”¦ love sitting on the boardwalk and looking out at the trees, how tall they all are.”

Before they leave though, Redmond, Myles and Robinson will visit three schools: The University of Southern Maine, University of New England and Bowdoin College. With their diverse career aspirations ”“ pediatrician, brain surgeon and mechanical engineer, respectively ”“ the three may decide to come back to study in the environment they’ve come to enjoy.

— Walter Wuthmann is a junior at Bowdoin College and a contributor to the student-run newspaper, The Orient. He is an intern with The Nature Conservancy this summer.

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