A group of local teens is battling the stereotype that their generation spends all day inside on the Internet — and they’re getting paid to do it.
They are part of the Youth Environmental Entrepreneurship Program, or YEEP, the nonprofit Meadowscaping for Biodiversity ’s arm that provides summer jobs for high school students in Waltham and Cambridge.
The teens have set up their own business — complete with HR, finance, and marketing departments — selling native plants and gardening services to businesses and residents in the area.
“I spend six hours a day inside at school and then I come home and have to do my homework inside,” said Havo Akobirshoeva, a Waltham High School junior who is spending her second summer in the program. “This is a good chance to be outside. I got to talk to people, socialize, and most of all do something productive that I know will make a difference in Waltham.”
The program is designed to provide meaningful work experience while also benefiting the environment, according to Barbara Passero, founder and director of Meadowscaping for Biodiversity, and Jean Devine, co-creator and program leader.
“High school students have a real need for earning money for doing something purposeful,” Devine said. “We could provide that by teaching them about the environment and having a healthy program where they work outside.”
The students aren’t pushing cacti or succulents, but perennials such as goldenrods and black-eyed Susans that are native to New England. They are the best hosts for pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and moths. In turn, the insects attract other wildlife like birds and rabbits, building biodiversity.
“Planting native plants [is] really beneficial to other organisms. They were built to be attracted to these plants and evolved together that way,” said Akobirshoeva. “It’s a way to show you care and show appreciation for the earth.”
Passero and Devine call their mission “intentional gardening.” In last year’s pilot program, YEEP students placed 420 plants in 12 gardens.
They see their program as a model that other cities and organizations can easily duplicate, and expanded their own effort this summer with 14 students, an increase from last year’s six. In addition to selling plants, the students have set up demonstration meadows at First Parish in Waltham and Reservoir Church in Cambridge.
The students get paid through the City of Waltham’s Summer Works Program and the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program in Cambridge. Meadowscaping for Biodiversity also has collaborated with the Waltham Partnership for Youth to provide extra job support for the students.
Kaytie Dowcett, executive director of the Waltham Partnership for Youth, said the goal of the organization is to provide equal access to low-income teens and students of color through meaningful internship opportunities.
Six of the students in this year’s YEEP cohort also are participating in Partnership for Youth’s summer program, which provides weekly reflection and workshop sessions with an internship coordinator to build work skills. In addition, Passero and Devine bring in environmental specialists to talk about employment opportunities in the field.
The Waltham Partnership for Youth is in its second year, placing 40 students in internship positions at companies in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), law, finance, nonprofit, and other fields.
Akobirshoeva said YEEP has opened her eyes to future possibilities. As she begins to look at colleges, she is looking at majoring in environmental and political science so she can connect her interest in science to her community.
“I know this is going to stick with me, but you never know what’s going to come in your path so that can change and become a new interest,” she said.
Meanwhile, her interest in native plants doesn’t end when she clocks out. She said her family had never really kept up a garden at home, but this year that’s changing.
“I convinced my dad and planted a couple of milkweeds because they attract monarch butterflies and that would be cool,” she said.
That was Passero and Devine’s goal all along, to get more people to see the importance of native plants. Their motto is if you help your own backyard, you in turn help your neighborhood and your community, and they are using these kids to spread that message.
“If you’re exposed to nature at a young age,” said Passero, “you develop an empathy and compassion for it. We have young people bringing back the most valuable thing you can plant.”