Supervisor Meghan Loury, right, gives pointers to Haney Haidari 15, of Portland on Thursday before sending Haidari out onto a trail to clip low branches as part of the Portland Youth Corps. Members of the program spent the day at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland working on trails. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A promotional video about the new Portland Youth Corps reminded Baqer Jalil of his aunt’s farm back in Iraq.

The three-minute video showed Meghan Loury, who is leading the Youth Corps during its inaugural season, displaying a variety of hand tools used to maintain hiking trails, including a McLeod, which is a combination rake and hoe that’s used to smooth and tamp down gravel, and a pick mattock, which is used to dig up and cut roots.

“One of my aunts used to have a farm and it had all of these cool tools,” said the 16-year-old Jalil, who came to the United States in 2013. “I wanted to learn how to use these tools and also to help out the community around me and the trails so they can be proud of it.”

Jalil is one of 24 people chosen to part of the city’s first Youth Corps, a program created this year to provide outdoor education and work experience to Portland teens between the ages of 14 and 16.

The program’s $50,000 budget is funded through private donations to the Portland Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit created in 2017 to help raise money to enhance parks programming. It operates in partnership with the Portland Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, the Maine Conservation Corps, the Maine Audubon Society and Portland Trails.

Ethan Hipple, director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, said he’s been interested in creating the program since he joined the city in 2016. He was introduced to parks and conservancy work through a similar program while growing up in San Francisco, where he was raised by a single mother who didn’t have much money.

Hipple said he joined a free youth corps and then received a scholarship that allowed him to travel to Colorado, where he spent a summer working on the trails. He’s has been hooked ever since.

“It literally changed the direction in my life,” Hipple said. “Everything I have done I can credit back to my experience at the youth corps. I’m grateful for what it did for me, and I wanted to pass that opportunity along to other kids.”

While other nonprofits have similar programs, Hipple believes Portland’s is the only municipal program in the state and one that allows participants to work in their own community – a testament to the open space opportunities in the city. He said other communities have expressed interest in creating similar programs.

Dalvio Buiti 16, of Portland uses a mattock as he removes a root from a trail in Evergreen Cemetery in Portland Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The 24 participants this year were split in half and each crew of 12 will work for four weeks, one from June 26 to July 16 and the other from July 19 to Aug. 13. Although technically a volunteer opportunity, each will receive a $500 stipend at the end of their service, an arrangement that allows more teenagers to participate.

Loury, an AmeriCorps environmental steward with the Maine Conservation Corps, said the program is designed to introduce youngsters to the outdoors, while also teaching them important job skills, such as interviewing for a position, drafting resumes and cover letters, and showing up to work regularly. It also exposes them to potential careers in parks, the sciences or engineering.

The program begins with a stay at the Ecology School, a nonprofit outdoor education program established in 1998 that opened a new residential program in Saco last year. Over the course of four days and three nights, Loury said the crew learns about plants, trees, wildlife and survival skills.

“That was great,” Loury said. “They bonded and played a lot of games and learned a lot about trees, plants and animals. It was pretty cool.”

After that, the crew began working in city parks. Loury said she wants them to experience different parts of the city’s parks and rec department. Last week, it was trail work – pulling up tripping hazards like rocks and roots, smoothing trail surfaces with fresh gravel, shoring up bridges, pruning tree branches and pulling up invasive species. They soon will begin working at the city’s playgrounds.

Last Thursday, Jalil and others were conducting trail maintenance on the Forest City Trail, which runs along either side of the duck ponds in Evergreen Cemetery. Conditions were mostly cloudy, yet warm and humid, but the weather was a welcome respite from a heat wave that brought a string of 90-plus degree days to the area.

From left: Adna Abdi, 16, of Portland; Snowden Overgaard, 16, of Portland; and Baqer Jalil, 16, of Portland make their way along a trail while working on the trails at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland while working for Portland Youth Corps. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Some participants, wielding pickaxes and pick mattocks, wore bright orange hardhats and forest green T-shirts with “Portland Youth Corps” on the back. Each yelled, “swinging,” before driving the tool into the ground to dig up and sever roots that had become tripping hazards in the trail. Other participants yelled “bumping,” when carefully passing by to avoid getting hit.

Loury said the teenagers have fully embraced the experience, even if labor-intensive trail maintenance is not their preferred work.

“They are crushing it,” she said. “They’re doing such a good job. They’re amazing, especially with these really hot days we’ve had.”

Loury interviewed more than 60 applicants and, in selecting participants, she looked for a diverse group of teenagers who were interested in nature, science and getting real life work experience. She encouraged underserved and minority teens to apply, but the group also has participants from more privileged upbringings.

“It really runs the gamut,” she said. “I was looking for teens who were super interested in outdoor work and science but who also needed the program and didn’t have a lot going on in the summer. I was very conscientious about choosing a reflective pool based on who had applied.”

Loury said she’d love to see the program grow to the point where anyone who’s interested can participate. But all that depends on fundraising.

Baqer Jalil 16, of Portland spreads gravel along a trail in Evergreen Cemetery on Thursday while working for the Portland Youth Corps program. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nan Cumming, director of the Portland Parks Conservancy, said it took her two years to raise enough money to launch the program. She hopes more foundations, organizations and individuals will buy into the program on an ongoing basis, now that it’s up and running and teenagers have shown a strong interest in participating.

“I have to raise that same amount of money or more next year,” Cumming said. “If I don’t raise the money, it doesn’t happen next year. Hopefully, we will find folks who will want to support it year after year.”

Cumming said she hopes the community will see the value in continuing the program, which “hits on so many important things that really touch people’s hearts,” such as environmental stewardship, education, job training and additional income for families who may need it.

“It’s hard for them to get a job at that age and they may come from families who need the extra income,” she said.

Loury thinks interest in the program is being driven by the fact that so many teenagers have spent the last year and a half isolated and cooped up at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think people are really rallying around this because of COVID,” she said. “Everyone wants to be outside and interacting with friends.”

Shukri Ukash, 16, left, of Portland and Haney Haidari, 15, of Windham shovel gravel to be used on trails at Evergreen Cemetery in as the Portland Youth Corps worked on trails at the cemetery Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Camaraderie, fun and being outdoors are what attracted the attention of Shakri Ukash, a 16-year-old Riverton neighborhood resident who said she would likely be babysitting this summer if it weren’t for Youth Corps. The program gives her an opportunity to do something new.

“I wanted to learn more about the outdoors,” she said. “I didn’t grow up going outside or learning about plants and stuff. So when I saw this opportunity, I took it.”

Her friend, 15-year-old Haney Haidari, said she was interested in serving the community while doing something she enjoys, such as being outside. But she had other motivations as well.

“Just seeing everything, being with people and just having fun,” she said.

Ukash and Haidari seemed particularly enamored with the wildlife. They took a break from working last week so they could watch a procession of ducklings swim in the pond. On their way to pick up more tools, they got sidetracked by a great egret wading in another pond nearby and a man who was feeding at least three large snapping turtles.

Back on the trail, Snowden Overgaard was spreading gravel. The 16-year-old West End resident said she was planning on getting her first real job this summer, but rather than taking one for minimum wage, she chose the Youth Corps to get work experience and have some fun.

Baqer Jalil, 16, of Portland spreads gravel along a trail in Evergreen Cemetery in Portland while working for the Portland Youth Corps program Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“If you’re going to get a job, it’s nice to be outdoors in the summertime,” she said.

While Overgaard struggled under the oppressive heat last week, Jalil did not, saying his time in Iraq acclimated him to hot days. But there was one thing for which he was not prepared.

“It’s just the bugs – they’re killing me,” he said. 

Jalil, who also learned how to identify poison ivy and treat the rash it causes – a valuable skill in the Maine woods – said he looks forward to doing more community service programs like this one. He hopes the community’s appreciation for nature and service will grow, just like his has.

For many, it’s a journey that begins with one step, perhaps on a newly manicured trail.

“I hope people start using this trail,” he said. “I hope they use it and always help the environment and not throw their trash anywhere they want to throw it. And to take care of the environment and animals.”

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