Wildlife Preserve plans to build on Job Corps experience

Wes Faris, executive director of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve, talks about the Job Corps program that started this past summer in his Midland office. Plans are to offer it again next year. (Ruth Campbell|Odessa American)

High school students from around the area learned about wildlife first hand as part of the I-20 Wildlife Preserve enlarged its outdoor classroom in an entirely new way this summer after welcoming seven Midland high school students into its new Conservation Job Corps program.

The program allowed high school students from Legacy High School and Trinity School with an interest in medicine, biology and life sciences an opportunity to obtain hands-on experience in conservation, restoration, education and research before entering college and get paid for it. Six students completed the program.

They were technically employees of I-20 Wildlife Preserve for that four-week period. The funding comes from donations.

The program blended life skills lessons, such as learning to use tools, with classroom instruction, and hands-on exploration and observation. Students will have the opportunity to investigate several Texas ecosystems, as well as meet with experts, scientists and graduate students on their field trips across the state.

“They went to Monahans. They went to Idalou. They went to Corpus (Christi). They went to San Marcus. They went to San Antonio,” Faris said.

At the end, they were supposed to go to Dallas to meet with Green Space Dallas conservation students and canoe up and down the Trinity River to pick up trash, but one of the students came down with COVID.

“They got to experience so many different areas. They went to Balmorhea. They went to Alpine and got to visit with the Heart Institute in Corpus, the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross (State University). The executive director over at the Monahans sand dunes, the forestry department up at Idalou; Reese Air Force Base,” Faris said.

They also visited The Meadows Foundation in San Marcos and the San Antonio Zoo.

“They got to see the project that the San Antonio Zoo is working with TCU on developing and helping replenish the horny toad lizard population in the state of Texas,” Faris said.

Courtesy Photo

He added that the students also got a chance to learn different life skills at the preserve. They built a homemade quail drinker for the quail population out of the preserve. Part of this effort was to let the students know about career opportunities in the field of biology.

In talking to professors, they said a lot of young people are missing skills to conduct field research, how to use a Bobcat, back a truck up to a trailer without technology and how to use a chainsaw among other things to make the quail drinker.

“We did have a professional welder come out that showed the kids how to cut the metal and then the welder actually did the welding. We didn’t have the students actually do the welding, but they put it all together did maintenance to our coil trail out of the preserve. … With the chainsaw, they cut new sitting stumps for the little kids for our play area so they were able to utilize and learn different life skills that none of them had ever done before, which again, we felt important for them,” Faris said.

“On the days that they were not traveling, students would meet at the preserve at 8 a.m. and work on some type of conservation project — whether it was the quail trail or the quail drinker. They would break at 11 a.m. or 11:30. We would provide them lunch and then we would have about an hour to two hours worth of classroom study. We tried to focus it on the areas they were going to be seeing,” Faris said.

The first week, the focus was the Trans-Pecos. Two students at a time would do a research project that they would spend 15 to 20 minutes presenting to the rest of the class on the area they were going to see, the importance of it and a little bit of its history.

“Then they would follow up with employment opportunities for those different ecosystems. … We had a curriculum that Jaxon McAndrew, who is our conservation land manager, Evelyn Guererro, who was our student leader. She’s a student over at UTPB. She and her department had been doing a two-year research project out of the preserve on pollinators. The two of them really helped put the curriculum together for the students. It was a paying program. They weren’t stuck in a classroom all day long,” Faris said.

McAndrew said the Job Corps was an amazing opportunity for everyone involved.

“It benefited these students in a way that prepared them for their future. Visiting these conservation organizations allowed the students to meet the conservationists and gain hands-on experience about the operations of conservation,” he said in an email. “Even though most of the aspirations of these students were not geared toward conservation, we opened their eyes to the wide possibilities their education could take them.”

“We influenced these kids greatly to see how the land and wildlife are integrated deeply within our lives. Learning the importance of resources was a critical part of our curriculum, as well as teaching them useful life skills. By the end of the Job Corps, students were able to operate our Tool-CAT, safely use a chainsaw, prepare resumes for college, and conduct useful field work for biology. Students loved tasks such as pinning insects for entomology, pressing flowers and leaves for botany, or conducting a water test to measure health of an ecology.”

“This is an opportunity I wish I had available to me as a young student. Before I worked here, the closest experience I had to this Job Corps was volunteering at the I-20 Wildlife Preserve. I worked on the same trail in the quail habitat that these students worked on, and to see them help finish the trail was a rewarding accomplishment. At the end of the four weeks, the students were impressing me on what they took away from the program. We made a lasting effect that these students will remember as they progress through their education and careers,” McAndrew added.

This was the first year for the Job Corps program.

“I really thought it was incredible. I think it really exceeded our expectations. The students were extremely engaging. All the partners that helped us across the state were incredible with the curriculum that they had when the kids were there getting them engaged, teaching them about the different areas and the kids had a good time, too,” Faris said.

He added that he thinks they will have the program again.

“It is something that we want to continue to build off of from this past year and continue to grow it,” Faris said.