For Tamara Lee Pinard, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Maine’s community program director, understanding people’s relationship to nature is essential to finding sustainable solutions to the environmental challenges we all face. In 2019, she met Julia Sleeper-Whiting, founder and executive director of Tree Street Youth in Lewiston. Tree Street Youth is a community of young people and adults who use their diverse experiences to create youth-centered programs and partnerships that encourage leadership, learning, exploration, and growth.
Sleeper-Whiting gave Lee Pinard a tour of the center and explained the organization’s rapid growth in programs focused on academic workforce skills and safe recreation. While TNC is one of the most wide-reaching environmental organizations in the world, and Tree Street Youth is a grassroots, urban-based youth center serving predominantly immigrant and refugee families, the two women found their organizations shared a lot in common, including an appreciation for the healing power of nature.
An important Tree Street Youth approach is to co-create initiatives and programs with participants. Working together, TNC and Tree Street Youth staff and kids identified key opportunities for collaboration, with a focus on building familiarity with, and access to, nature in order to support safety and healing for all. This led to a series of collaborative pilot programs. With funding support from TNC, Tree Street Youth hired a summer fellow to introduce young people to places in Maine they hadn’t seen before, through day trips to nature preserves, overnight camping, and nature-based community-service projects.
Next, TNC supported a three-day Wilderness First Aid training course for Tree Street Youth staff and other leaders from organizations focused on creating more access to nature for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in Maine. Now, Tree Street Youth and TNC are piloting a leadership program called Leaf Leaders, providing training and opportunities for young people to explore, learn about climate change and conservation, and inspire peers to experience nature.
“Kids in our community live with a lot of vulnerability and trauma every day, and being in nature has an enormous healing power,” Sleeper-Whiting says. “This partnership with TNC really lit a fire under us to make nature-based experiences central to our healing approaches with youth and staff.” Lee Pinard agrees it has been exciting to watch the partnership grow. “We’re now always talking about what’s next,” she says. “How else can we connect people and nature for the benefit of both?”