This summer, the Cook County Forest Preserve District is planting a few seeds of hope.
More than 50 African-American teenagers from the south suburbs will be working in the Cook County Forest Preserves removing invasive plant species, earning some money and maybe changing the future.
All of the participants are from low-income families that are clients of the Housing Authority of Cook County.
They have signed “contracts” in which they promise to do things like take pride in their work, be fair with each other, communicate effectively, respect the privacy of co-workers and follow directions. And, oh yes, have some fun.
Andrew Sisson, manager of education and outreach for the Housing Authority of Cook County, offered up his view of the program’s goals.
“They’re going to be out of bed and ready for work at 7 a.m. every day,” Sisson said. “They’re going to learn basic skills of being on time, dressing for work each day, working with others and completing a task. These are things that are going to help them get a job in the future.”
Unemployment statistics among black teenagers in the south suburbs of Cook County are staggering.
According to a recent study by The Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago, many south suburban municipalities have unemployment rates as high as 80 to 90 percent for black teens, ages 16 to 19, who are out of school.
Last year in Cook County, 6,551 African-American teens ages 16 to 19, and 14,967 young black men and women ages 20 to 24, were out of school and out of work and did not have a high school diploma.
In response to those numbers, in part, the Housing Authority of Cook County, Cook County Forest Preserve District and Friends of the Forest Preserves have joined forces to provide jobs and training this summer to 53 low-income teenagers, 14 to 19 years old.
They will be given some basic training in botany, provided with boots, safety glasses, one meal a day and some gardening tools, and be paid $8.25 an hour to work part-time in four south suburban forest preserve areas.
They will be picked up at Prairie State and South Suburban community colleges each day and transported to their assignments, which will end at 1 p.m. Each member will be assigned to one of six teams.
Young team leaders, 21 years of age and also from low-income families, will supervise their work assignments.
“If you have a question, if you need help, don’t hesitate to call your team leader,” the youngsters were told by instructors. “Don’t ever be afraid to ask a question. When you get a job, you should always be prepared to communicate with our supervisor. Communication is one of the tools we agreed to develop in our contracts.”
The experience, Forest Preserve officials say, could make a team leader a “desirable candidate” for a future position with the district itself.
Every teenager in the program first had to interview for the opportunity to participate this summer. Most have plans to go to college.
Rich Monocchio, executive director of the Cook County Housing Authority, said the goal is actually a simple one.
“We want to give them a chance,” he said.
Myeisha Massey, 17, of Chicago Heights, wants to become a journalist. She said she loves nature, “flowers, trees and stuff” and wanted something constructive to do this summer.
Tjuandell (“T.J.”) Evans, of Chicago Heights, 16, said he wants to use the opportunity to “learn something new” and “help me make better life choices and broaden the choice of jobs I might get in the future.”
There are 70,000 acres in the Cook County Forest Preserve system, the largest in the nation. It predates the creation of the National Park Service by two years.
Cook County officials acknowledge this is a small program. It is a noble cause that will hopefully inspire corporate leaders to expand the program and plant more seeds of hope.