Each summer, a Jackson State University senior industrial technology management student returns to his Illinois hometown to teach at-risk youth important environmental lessons and job skills as they cut thick undergrowth and haul away branches from a forest.
Antonio Richardson, 21, of Dolton, Illinois, just completed his eighth “tour of duty.” In the fall, he’ll return to JSU in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.
Richardson said his summer experience helped him settle on a degree program at JSU. He started in biology but eventually switched to industrial technology – a field that helps eliminate waste in the production process by implementing new technology. He believes his current major also branches out into forest preserve, technical areas and behind-the-scenes work.
He was 15 when he entered the forest preserve program that allowed him to begin earning summer wages. Back then, he was living on the eastside of Chicago in an area that “wasn’t that great of a neighborhood.” For eight consecutive summers, he’s been going back to Illinois to work with the program. Now, however, he’s a team leader working for the state’s Forest Preserve Experience jobs program.
The program has helped a number of families that live in public housing as well as those who use vouchers from the Housing Authority of Cook County in Illinois.
‘An ambitious kid’
While some youth may have had worst experiences growing up than his family, Richardson recalls that “things hadn’t always been the best for my family. But, I stuck with the program because I was always an ambitious kid.” In fact, Richardson wanted to work so that he could begin earning money for his first car. “I never cared about the little things such as clothes and shoes.” He said those are important, but his desire for a car drove him to apply.
Richardson said the forest preserve program includes male and female teens from throughout the Chicago area. Participants, ages 14-19, work with high school crewmembers from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. They helped eradicate invasive species such as buckthorn and honeysuckle in the forest.
“We try to teach the youth about the importance of forest conservation and how to execute it,” Richardson said. “For many, it’s their first jobs, so we don’t overwork them. We make the experience fun and educational. We introduce them to the working field, even if it’s not the field they prefer. We assist them with developing good job skills and working habits.”
As a team leader, Richardson has seen a lot of kids struggle. “They don’t have as much as the average kids.” He cautions against brushing them off, though. Rather, he said, individuals should try to understand why some youth act out in menacing ways. “Coming from where I came from, I try to keep an open mind. When I see misbehaving kids in a working environment it makes me get more involved. I’m going to try to understand the student and allow him to understand me and where I’m coming from.”
He recalls a student named Tommy who had some behavioral issues and almost got kicked out of the program. Richardson’s supervisor asked him to intervene. The result was profound.
Eventually, Tommy would open up about his problems. The youth was determined because he walked to work daily and always arrived on time. But he had no resources. So, Richardson helped Tommy set up a bank account. “A lot of kids don’t have anybody to help them. After spending time with him, Tommy realized he was not alone. He did an entire turnaround,” Richardson explained.
Overall, Richardson said the current program is changing the lives of many other youth. It’s not just all work; it’s fun and educational, too.
“Preserve staff workers are teaching kids how to identify various types of trees and other vegetation. The young workers learn to avoid poison ivy and other plants. Also, they develop professional skills and understand the importance of arriving at a job on time and being prepared for work,” Richardson said.
He added, “They learn how to work together in teams and treat co-workers with respect. I always tell my kids you can do what you want to do as long as you get up and do it. If you work toward something, even if it’s a half step, you’ll progress throughout the day.”
Richardson said, “Ultimately, the sole benefit for me in this program and why I come back is that my co-workers and I recognize what needs to be done for these kids – even if the youth hate the program and never want to do it again. The important thing is that they walk away a better person. I cherish all my youth and make them feel important. I let them know that if you’re trying to be the best, then you are the best.”