Get a bunch of city kids out in the park to learn trail maintenance and it can get unpleasant rapidly—or it can be downright inspiring.

“It’s hard work, it’s hot and it’s buggy,” says Jennifer Meccariello Layman, who directs the Pittsburgh chapter of the national Student Conservation Association (SCA), which placed 102 local high-schoolers from underserved neighborhoods in outdoor summer jobs this month. “They’re wearing long pants, hard hats and boots. They can get a little grouchy because of that. Some kids figure out, ‘I don’t want to work outside.’ Other kids figure out that they love it.”

These 14- to 19-year-olds are fixing up city and regional parks by improving trails, plucking out invasive species and planting trees. They’re also helping to recover vacant lots and greenspaces in Hazelwood and Glen Hazel, adding rain barrels to Lincoln-Lemington homes and maintaining food and flower gardens.

“It’s the first job for most of them,” says Layman. “They are not very connected to the outdoors or the environment in the parks, so it’s a new experience. By the end of the summer they are a well-oiled machine … and there’s a definite pride in what they’ve accomplished.”

Now in its 15th year, the Pittsburgh SCA aims to help the teens learn other skills too, with work-readiness lessons offered amid the time outdoors. Those doing vacant lot remediation are even documenting their work with Gigapan cameras this year for the first time. Gigapans create digital panoramic images, so the kids will gain lessons in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and math—while making a record of their work for Hazelwood and Glen Hazel to preserve and display.

“It will give them a bigger sense of accomplishment for what they complete,” says Layman. Not to mention that “Gigapans are just pretty cool.”

Maybe some of the kids will even turn into conservationists, she says. “Our mission is to create the next generation of conservation leaders. We want to start planting that seed of environmental and eco-stewardship.”

At the end of the summer, participants are invited to a weekend camping trip in the Allegheny National Forest, which is also a new experience for most of them, she says.

“It’s tough to instill a love of nature when you’re just working,” she allows. “We can show them what they’re working for—the fun you can have outside in addition to the work it takes to keep everything working properly.”

“Our biggest goal … is to keep kids coming back for programs,” she says. The SCA also runs a Student Conservation Leadership Corps that places volunteers in state parks, a program in the country’s national parks. It also has two internship programs for college grads with sustainability degrees who work with local nonprofits promoting rural and small-town tourism along the Greater Allegheny Passage and in the Mon Valley. “We’d love to see kids who are interested in this keep going with us.”

Marty Levine

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He teaches magazine writing for Creative Nonfiction magazine.