Nonprofit promotes conservation among teens

Pennsylvania high school students are being given an opportunity to help ensure and sustain wildlife, fisheries and natural resources in their own legacy for future generations by enrolling and completing the Wildlife Leadership Academy.

“The primary goal of the Wildlife Leadership Academy is to develop a corps of well-informed youth who are committed to serving as spokespersons for conservation in Pennsylvania,” said Michelle Kittell, academy executive director.

The non-profit academy holds field schools, where students are educated by experts in a variety of areas. During school, students are out in the field learning about wildlife or fisheries biology, ecology, management, monitoring and research and natural history.

Kittell said they are encouraged to explore and reflect in the outdoors and are guided to develop leadership and interpersonal skills.

“It is our hope that when they leave the field schools they feel educated and empowered to follow through with their challenge to become ‘conservation ambassadors’ and take part in outreach in their communities in the areas of education, service work, media engagement, creative arts and outdoor mentorship,” Kittell said.

There are five field schools: Pennsylvania Bucktails, Bass, Brookies, Drummers and Gobblers.

Northumberland County student Katie Mace, who participated in the Gobbler school last year, was made aware of the academy by her eighth-grade science teacher, Jason Weller, who also nominated her to attend.

“Originally, I wanted to attend the Bucktails camp, but I was accepted into the Gobblers field school. I think going to a different camp than I would have originally chosen made my experience better because I didn’t know anything about turkeys and so I had so much more to learn,” Mace said.

She loved the experience and said it gave a great combination of fun and education while she created bonds with her team and other academy students.

“Everyone was so friendly and easy to talk to. The program helped to guide my outreach after the field school ended. Since the conclusion of the camp, I have led several friends and family into the outdoors. I also have done several educational presentations informing others on (the academy) and wild turkeys,” she said.

Mace said she learned valuable leadership and communication skills.

“The leadership skills really stuck out to me as the most valuable thing I learned. I know that I can use these skills in anything I need in the future,” she said. “I’m not sure what career path I want to choose. I am not considering being a turkey biologist, but I can apply the leadership and communication skills that I learned to whatever career I choose for myself.”

The academy organizes and administers the field school with agencies and organizations as part of its core and making it a cooperative initiative. Some affiliates include Audubon Pennsylvania, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Clear Water Conservancy, Conservation Officers of Pennsylvania Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Ruffed Grouse Society, Trout Unlimited, Quality Deer Management Association and The Wildlife Society, Pennsylvania chapter.

Also involved are local and state-run agencies such as local and state parks, the state Game Commission, Fish and Boat Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The academy looks for highly motivated students between the ages of 14 and 17 who have a demonstrated interest in the outdoors and in wildlife and/or fisheries conservation, Kittell said.

Students receive many things of achievement and advancement for their future when they complete the program.

They become “conservation ambassadors” and receive letters of recommendation from the executive director for college applications and certificates of community service work. Conservation ambassadors are eligible to receive three college credits from Cedar Crest College; apply to become a youth mentor and return to the program tuition free the following year; compete for college scholarships; attend college visit days at colleges and universities that have wildlife and conservation programs; and join an academy alumni network of 100-plus wildlife, fisheries and conservation professionals.

Students who are interested in attending the academy are encouraged to ask a teacher or other mentor to nominate them to apply to the program. Once nominated, the student will receive an invitation to apply to the academy.

Nominations for academy students and those interested in serving as mentors can be found at wildlifeleadershipacademy.org.

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