A natural connection: Cleveland nonprofit prepares students for future environmental careers

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed recreation centers in Cleveland, Whitnye Long Jones got a call from Cleveland Metroparks—would she like to help organize programs for youth? Soon her nonprofit organization, Organic Connects was partnering with Metroparks’ Youth Outdoors program as a way to help urban youth connect with the outdoors.

“That was one good thing for our organization—we picked up business because people were looking for things to do outdoors in COVID,” recalls Jones. “They needed organizations to connect with, and they connected with us.”

Organic Connects feels that nature helps urban youth escape everyday stressors like these kids fishing at Rockefeller Park. Jones formed Organic Connects in 2017 to continue the environmental and youth work started through former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Outside initiative. Jones, who previously worked for Let’s Move! Outside until funding ended in 2017, says the program did critical work helping youth in urban communities experience nature.

“We consider [Organic Connects] to be the legacy of ‘Let’s Move! Outside,’” Jones says. “When [Let’s Move! Outside] ended, everyone noticed that it was a need, it was so impactful, and it really just started the path I’m on right now.”  

Under the four pillars of environmental justice, education, recreation, and engagement, Organic Connects organizes programs ranging from environmental internships that help put kids on a career pathway, to field trips that teach kids how to survive in the outdoors.

In addition to helping city kids to get outside, the group also helps to train young people for future environmental careers. 

Jefferson Jones, operations director for Organic Connects, says he loves teaching participants fishing, birdwatching, canoeing, and camping, among other outdoor activities. He says he enjoys teaching kids the physical and mental benefits of being outside.

Jones explains that nature helps urban youth escape everyday stressors. “I just believe the outdoors provides a natural sanctuary for anybody and everybody—especially individuals who are dealing with stress and living in tough situations,” he says.

Organic Connects field trips provide city kids the opportunity to get outside like this family outing at Nimisila Reservoir in Summit County.Organic Connects field trips also provide opportunities for families to bond in nature together. “We have this photo of a family who brought their one-year-old,” Jefferson Jones says of a recent trip to Nimisila Reservoir in Summit County. “He’s got this fishing pole in his little hand and it’s just, oh, it hits you in the soul, in the heart. It’s a fantastic image.” 

Reframing Engagement and Involvement with Green Networks (REIGN) is a year-long after-school leadership development program that helps interest students in environmental justice issues. The program challenges students to tackle real environmental issues like mitigating plastic in waterways or improving air quality where they live.

Through the REIGN program, Organic Connects also helps students apply for and obtain internships with environmental organizations. Ultimately, Jefferson Jones says, the goal is to help steer students into environmental career tracks in college and beyond. 

Tonya Messam is an example of how Organic Connects links young people to employment opportunities. Messam grew up participating in Organic Connects’ programs and is now an administrative coordinator intern.

“It’s everything that I kind of wanted when I was looking for an environmental internship,” Messam says. “[I’m] helping out the community, teaching the youth, and also networking while meeting so many amazing people with amazing stories.” 

Another one of the Organic Connects’ programs is NEO Nu Hydromatic Aquathon. This summer program, whose name combines Northeast Ohio’s acronym and the Egyptian word for water, teaches youth about water conservation, water quality testing, and similar issues. During the program, the participants also engage in fun activities like operating remote underwater vehicles and kayaking.

Whitnye Long Jones previously worked in the hospitality field but switched careers once she discovered her love for working with kids outside.

“I was born as a compassionate, wanting-to-connect-with-the-earth kind of individual to begin with,” she says. “That love for the community, that love for nature, was already there, but there was always this longing for more. So, I decided to change career paths, and once I acknowledged my mission, that’s when doors began to open up.”

Organic Connects is hosting community events throughout July and August. Check out the organization’s calendar for more information.

This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEO SoJo), which FreshWater Cleveland is a part of, Ideastream Public MediaThe LandThe NewsLab at Kent State UniversityWKSU, and La Mega.

Andres Ibarra is a journalism major at The Ohio State University and an intern with The Land.
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