Hillary Reyes walks with an air of confidence amongst a room of conservation professionals at Yellowstone National Park despite only being 17 years of age and growing up deep in the city. Her journey into environmental work started at age 12 when she first started working for Groundwork Dallas. Her parents had an appreciation for nature, but with little financial resources, they never ventured far from their urban neighborhood. They recognized her passion for green, though, and when they heard about Groundwork working in their community, they encouraged her to apply.
“My first experience at age 12 was sitting in a canoe removing trash from the Trinity River,” Hillary recalled. She was hooked after that. For the next five years, Hillary remained active with Groundwork. Splashed across her Facebook pages are scores of photos: Hillary working with Groundwork Dallas; Yellowstone National Park, including serving last summer with the park’s Youth Conservation Corps; her time spent at the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center as part of Groundwork’s Youth Summit; and her recent summer experience with Canyon County Youth Corps in Monticello, Utah.
“I’m still in conservation, because even when I’m in school in the bleakest winter in Dallas, all I think about is being outdoors in nature,” Hillary confided. “I still remember the first time I saw the mountains of Yellowstone,” she reminisced. “We just don’t have something like that in Dallas, and it’s the mountains that keep me wanting to return.”
Groundwork USA employs a time-tested model to encourage youth to become the next generation of conservation stewards. The youth remain with their Groundwork Trust working on conservation projects, sometimes for years on end. Groundwork pairs the work the youth are doing in their neighborhoods — work often praised by local residents as improving the quality of their lives — with time spent working with federal partners such as the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This helps the youth see that the restoration projects they are doing at home are connected to broad conservation efforts. Groundwork also includes lots of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) enrichment activities so that the youth are better prepared for the rigors of academic training as they pursue a career path in conservation.
Reyes already has her own approach to encourage others to engage in conservation. She describes it as follows: “People in my part of the city don’t often get to experience nature, but with all the environmental challenges facing our planet, people need to see the beauty of it all, know what’s out there, and get in mind that we need to take care of the earth.” When pressed on what she would say to convince others to care, Hillary just shook her head. “I don’t think I could find the words to inspire others to get involved, but I know how to show them.”
Currently, Hillary is working with a crew of Groundwork Youth at Yellowstone National Park. The program is a collaboration between the park and Groundwork USA founded by Judy Knuth-Folts, Deputy Chief of Resource Education and Youth Programs, and Bob Fuhrmann, Youth Programs Director and Volunteer-in-Park Coordinator at Yellowstone. The crew is made up of Groundwork youth from 23 different cities working on trail improvements and other such preservation efforts through the end of August. The YCC/GWUSA partnership has been very successful, allowing youth who progress through Groundwork’s youth programming the opportunity to spend a whole month doing conservation work at Yellowstone.
Hillary ended the interview by saying “Without Groundwork providing me with these experiences, I wouldn’t be here… I wouldn’t have found a way for doing what I love doing.”
Curt Collier is Groundwork USA’s National Youth Programs Director