Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy
Keira Adams, left, gets a hand from Glenda Sanchez, center, into a stream with Lenie Ventura, right, in tow on Santa Cruz Island.
Instead of spending their summer breaks shopping or texting friends, high-schoolers from urban neighborhoods in South Los Angeles lived, worked and played in some of the most remote nature preserves in the country, as part of a program that aims to get young people interested in science careers. On Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, a group of teenage girls is getting some real world experience with nature conservation.
Dolphins, whales and other wildlife can be spotted along the way to the island. Every day, dozens of tourists hitch a ride there aboard a two-deck catamaran piloted by Captain David Corey.
Most tourists get off at the first stop to go hiking and camping at Scorpion Ranch, which is national park land. The other three-quarters of the island is private; it belongs to an international nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy.
The boat reaches the remote "Prisoner's Harbor," where there are no services or even power lines. Captain Corey instructs passengers to gather their belongings and head up to the bow of the boat to be dropped off.
Keira Adams is one of seven 17-year-old girls from Environmental Charter High School in South L.A. interning here this summer with The Nature Conservancy. She's perched on a log next to Santa Cruz Island's pebble-lined shore. She's the first to point out that this isn't your typical island.
"Even though we might think 'island,' you might think like tropical palm trees and stuff, but just coming out here, you experience something different," Adams explains. "Sometimes you'll see mountains and trees on the side. Or going through these things that kind of look like caves, and you see different animals such as a harbor seal or a sea lions."
Adams and her classmates are making $9 an hour to live and work on the island for a month. The program hosting them is called LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future.)
Alfredo Gonzalez manages programs for The Nature Conservancy in Southern California. He says they want LEAF interns to have fun while they're on the island. They kayak and hike, but they also have to remember that they're here for a job.
"I hope that the work would outweigh the fun. I mean, we're looking at these kids as employees. But really, what we're trying to do is expose these kids to this world, the natural world, and hopefully have them bring those lessons back and share them in their communities," Gonzalez says.
LEAF interns like Glenda Sanchez are working with scientists to clear out invasive plants and collect water from freshwater ponds.
"It was a man-made wetland. They took out all the dirt, the water was groundwater. When they made it, nothing was living there. So what we're going to do is find out what kinds of animals reside in the wetland," Sanchez says.
The girls were also able to see scientists give vaccinations to island foxes. Lenie Ventura, another LEAF intern, says that it's exciting to get a taste of what it's like to work with animals, since she hopes to do that herself someday.
"They were trying to preserve the number of foxes because of the golden eagle, which was an invasive species that came inside the island. They started eating the foxes so there was almost a verge of being an extinction," Ventura says.
After the scientists complete the vaccinations, the foxes are released back into the wild.
The Nature Conservancy's Alfredo Gonzalez says they've tracked teens who've gone through the LEAF program. On average, about one in three of them pursue environmental jobs after college. And he says over half of them go on to volunteer for environmental causes in their communities.
LEAF intern Glenda Sanchez wants to do both. After she's done with high school next year, she plans to go to college to be an environmental engineer. For now, she's looking forward to sharing what she's learned on Santa Cruz Island with some of her "city friends."
"Most of them have never been out of the city, and they've never hiked or gone camping. They've never seen this type of wildlife I've seen," Sanchez says. "Telling them let's go camping, that might change their minds about going into nature and just seeing what's out there."
Environmentalists with the Nature Conservancy hope that students in the LEAF program turn their enthusiasm for nature into a lifelong mission to protect it.