LEAF connects inner-city students to nature

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Five years ago, Joshua Carrera was a high school sophomore living in a homeless shelter in New York City, thinking he would never find a way out.

"There was just no sense of hope in the environment that I grew up in," said Carrera, who grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. "It just wasn't getting any better."

Now, however, Carrera is a student at the University of Vermont, and this summer he's been part of a Nature Conservancy program designed to get inner-city students out into nature and possibly prepare them for careers in environmental work.

Carrera started in the program as a student at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, and he's now finishing up his second summer internship. This summer, students from New York City high schools that focus on the environment joined the program, called Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future.

During his 10-week stint, Carrera looked for endangered piping plovers' nests and monitored their reproductive success. He has been living in Quogue and working on the East End.

"Everything that I'm doing now, everything that I'm interested in, my view on life and the world, started with that program," he said.

About 60 percent of the students come from families living at or below the poverty level, said Brigitte Griswold, the Conservancy director of youth programs.

"We're witnessing a whole generation that's growing up without direct contact with nature," she said. "We're trying to not only expose young people to careers, but help them to value and appreciate nature."

Students are split into groups and placed along the East Coast.

Their tasks include maintaining trails, removing litter from beaches and cutting away invasive non-native plants. On Long Island, they also restore shellfish populations by helping nurse scallops, oysters and clams into adulthood, so they can be released into the Great South Bay to reproduce.

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"They're slowly bringing back sustainable harvest, getting it back to a few thousand clams," said Alpa Pandya, the conservancy finance and policy adviser.

Chanel Ramirez, 18, of Manhattan, who's in her second summer with the program, will be a freshman at Northeastern University in the fall. She plans to major in medicine and minor in environmental science.

"I've always lived in the city. I never had the opportunity to interact and be with the natural environment," she said. "It's the best feeling to know that at such a young age, your work is not in vain."

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