Belle Isle gets clean up boost thanks to students and Johnson Controls employees

Student teams have worked to clear trails on Detroit's Belle Isle compressed

Detroit’s Belle Isle is hopping with green activity this summer. Thanks to a student jobs program, created and sponsored by Johnson Controls (JCI), teams of volunteers are rolling down their sleeves, loading up on bug spray and clearing out sections of the island and other sites during a six-week timeframe. The project, in partnership with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), is clearing the way for a greener metro Detroit.

JCI's Shelia Bush helps CLC student clear path on Belle Isle

JCI’s Shelia Bush helps CLC student clear path on Belle Isle

The student crews through JCI’s Conservation Leadership Corps (CLC), with help from JCI employees and more experienced team leads, work on projects, including outdoor classroom construction, new trail development, green space acreage expansion and planting native trees, grasses and flowers.

The CLC, in its seventh year in Detroit, provides students with professional development, leadership skills and environmental conservation experience, while completing fundamental projects in local community parks, like Belle Isle.

“This is a huge project we have undertaken and the students play a big part in restoring Belle Isle for everyone to enjoy,” said Amit Weitzer, Detroit program manager with the SCA. “Part of the preparation process this year was having student teams walk the majority of the island and help map large wet areas for invasive species.” These “invaders” have prevented the island’s native plants and trees from growing.

Removing invasive species like poison ivy, buckthorn and honeysuckle is not easy work in the hot summer sun, but you wouldn’t know it, looking at the students smiling and laughing as they chop, cut and clear. Some of these weeds are as big trees on the island, which means students have to know what they are looking at before the hack away at the overgrown brush.

Diamond Hudson, a first year volunteer, is headed to MSU in the fall

Diamond Hudson, a first year volunteer, is headed to MSU in the fall

“This area was impervious when they started,” said Melva Dean, affectionately known as “Mebby” by students. “Dealing with some of these invasives is an ongoing process. We have to get them cut down. We have four wet areas we will be treating over the next two years here on Belle Isle thanks to a Department of Natural Resources grant.”

Organizers and students say they have cleared quite a bit of debris so far. At the Belle Isle work area, one of the students mentioned in passing, “We did a lot of damage, in a good way.” For nearly six hours a day, the teams work to make a dent in the massive effort. “What the CLC students do is invaluable,” added Dean.

Diamond Hudson will be a freshman this fall at Michigan State University. She describes herself as “not an outdoor person,” but loves what she is doing through the CLC.

“It’s nice to know we are helping the environment for everyone” she said. “I have learned a lot this summer that I can use for the rest of my life, no matter where my career takes me. I’m becoming a better person and I’m helping make a better community.”

Students Clear trail on Belle Isle with JC

Students Clear trail on Belle Isle with JC

The environmental project, in its seventh year, is designed to build leadership and professional development skills in hands-on, outdoor classrooms. The venues are not typical learning environments, but the conservation experience, helping beautify a Detroit jewel at the same time, is priceless.

Belle Isle is just one of several locations where students, experienced team leaders and JCI volunteers are making an impact. They will also focus their efforts in Detroit’s River Rouge Park, Eliza Howell Park, the Brightmoor neighborhood and D-Town Farm.

“The Conservation Leadership Corps program is important to us as it has a positive impact on the city of Detroit and the area’s high school students,” said Karen Sommer, director, global public affairs, Johnson Controls. “The students have a unique opportunity to gain hands-on work experience while developing professional skills and learning about the importance of environmental conservation.”

Throughout the course of the six-week program, students will work with seven crew leaders and seven crew leader apprentices and focus their efforts in Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, River Rouge Park and the Brightmoor neighborhood.

Shelia Bush with JCI helps students clear areas of Belle Isle

Shelia Bush with JCI helps students clear areas of Belle Isle

CLC participants were selected for this highly competitive program from more than 150 applicants based on their interview. Student candidates were assessed on leadership, work ethic, civic engagement, and interest and commitment to the environment.

Students also will cultivate vital professional development skills, including help with resume writing and interview skills.

On August 14, the students will participate in a professional development day – hosted by Johnson Controls’ Automotive Experience business at the company’s headquarters in Plymouth, MI. There, they will learn about sustainability, energy efficiency, hybrid battery technology, and the expectations of today and tomorrow’s leaders.

The program will culminate in a graduation ceremony on August 15 at Milliken State Park and Harbor, where the CLC students, crew leaders and community partners will present awards to the CLC teams.

Support for the program is also being provided by the City Connect’s Grow Detroit’s Young Talent Program, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, National Parks Service and U.S. Forest Service.

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