The Young Naturalist teen (ages 13-17) volunteer program creates opportunities for staff and teens to build meaningful relationships with each other and with nature over several months in an experiential learning program in which teens from around the Southern Appalachian region volunteer as stewards and interpreters of their mountain home. The Young Naturalist program challenges the trend of indoor childhood by engaging teens in nature-based programming which ripples out into the community.
The program annually attracts and accepts more than 80 teens and young adults who are interested in nature and the environment, a number of which identify as LGBTQ+, as neurodivergent, as coming from low-income households in rural and urban areas, and as youth of color. The program has a powerful way of strengthening the community, developing leaders, and fostering a sense of stewardship for our mountain home.
Starting in 2020, the Young Naturalist program went virtual amid the pandemic to continue serving teens while following public health guidelines. Although this was the first time running the program in a distance learning format, Teen Program Coordinator Alayna Schmidt actively engaged teens in expanded learning opportunities that staff and teens co-developed in response to the disruption. By participating in online meetings for socializing and interactive lessons, interviewing guest speakers, collecting data for citizen science projects, exploring environmental justice maps, and other special projects, teens continued to be enriched and earn service hours while sheltering at home under public health guidelines. The distance engagement that program staff and teen participants co-created will continue to support program goals and objectives as in-person opportunities return following the pandemic. Schmidt has won multiple grants to elevate the Young Naturalist program, including a recent $10,000 grant from the Children & Nature Network to strengthen the program while participating in a nationwide cohort exploring strategies for youth development and nature-based programming.
“The Young Naturalist program has been an incredible asset to our community for over 40 years. It has gone through significant changes over the years, with the most significant changes coming from the pandemic,” said Schmidt. “The creativity of our teens helped adapt the program to the times and has made it stronger and more accessible than ever.”
Asheville’s 42-acre WNC Nature Center, 75 Gashes Creek Road, is home to more than 60 species of animals, including river otters, black bears, red and gray wolves and a cougar. Its mission is to connect people with the animals and plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountain region by inspiring appreciation, nurturing understanding, and advancing conservation of the region’s rich biodiversity. The Nature Center is proud to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. For more information about the WNC Nature Center or for tickets, visit wildwnc.org. or call 828-259-8080.