Chesapeake Conservation Corps: Inspiring a Move from the Bay Area to the Bay Area

By Zoë Unruh, BTW Educator Specialist

A common question people ask me when they find out I’m from San Francisco is, “Seriously? Why did you leave?” My answer? The Chesapeake Conservation Corps. During my year of service, I worked with Montgomery County Public Schools Outdoor Environmental Education Program at the Lathrop E. Smith Center in Rockville. My capstone project as a Corps member at the Smith Center was to strengthen the service-learning component of the sixth grade Residential Program. At the end of my year of service, I landed a job with the Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF), a non-profit with 60 years of experience in connecting people to the natural world, sustainable agricultural practices and the cultural heritage of their local watershed through education, stewardship and advocacy. This year, AFF is looking for a Corps member to assist with all aspects of AFF’s outreach environmental education programming, action project development and implementation of the Schoolyards as Classroom Project and Trash Free Schools programs. With my experience both as a Corps member and with AFF, this opportunity is the perfect way to start your career in the environmental field.

Even though most of my time was spent at the Smith Center, I didn’t just learn skills specific to MCPS Outdoor Environmental Education. I also learned how to develop a project and write a grant to fund it; how to install water bars on a trail; how to prepare an energy audit; how to design and present a poster; how to interview for a job; and, probably most importantly, how to network. That is the true beauty of the Chesapeake Bay Trust’s model – it provides ample opportunities to explore all sectors of the environmental field as well as prepares Corps members for a career beyond their year of service. This is accomplished in several different ways: (1) Corps members are expected to complete site visits at other organizations in the program – an opportunity to see what work is done elsewhere in the environmental community as well as a chance to meet important individuals that have dedicated their professional lives to environmental work; (2) Corps members are expected to attend professional development sponsored by the Trust – a great way to build up your experience to make yourself more attractive to future employers; and (3) Corps members have the opportunity to attend Chesapeake Bay Watershed-wide networking events – the best way to make contacts in the region if you’re interested in continuing work in the environmental field. I commonly hear of two problems with internship programs: (1) the intern is stuck doing busy work for the organization and does not benefit professionally, or (2) the intern does not provide any deliverables for the organization. The Chesapeake Conservation Corps model allows for self-direction for both the Corps member and the host organization – effectively getting rid of those common problems by allowing the two parties involved to mutually benefit. AFF has chosen significant projects for you to take ownership of, while providing flexibility for you to develop your own interests and passions. You will no doubt finish your year of service feeling like you have contributed to AFF’s mission and left a lasting impact on the organization, while at the same time gaining invaluable experience to continue a career in the environmental field.

So I moved from my hometown San Francisco Bay Area to the Chesapeake Bay Area for an opportunity that has ultimately led me to my beloved job with the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Bridging the Watershed Program. Not-so-coincidentally I’m currently working on a project to incorporate service-learning into the Program – a beautiful extension of the project I worked on while I was a Corps member. The Conservation Corps not only provided me with the skills to obtain my job at AFF, but also nurtured a passion for stewardship that I am able to continue in my new post. The Corps is a great training ground for a career in the environmental field, whether in non-profit management, education, policy, or scientific fieldwork. Who knows, you may even start a life-long love affair with the projects you engage in during your year of service!