It says a lot about the value of a program when – even after graduating – alumni keep coming back every year. For eighteen years, the National Wildlife Federation’s Earth Tomorrow program has hosted its annual Summer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Summer Institute is a component of the Earth Tomorrow program where high school students from around the metro area are selected to spend a full week learning about environmental issues, networking with environmental professionals, working on service-learning projects, gaining leadership skills, and spending some good ole time outdoors.

Many of the past students and community leaders who have benefited from the program return each year to give back by facilitating activities, volunteering their time, mentoring students, and coordinating events for the week. Many of the early participants are already in their mid-thirties with careers and families of their own, but they continue to assist the program each summer and to help coordinate the camp. This cast of characters work hard each year, and they are the reason Earth Tomorrow has been around as long as it has. The Summer Institute has really “come full circle.” This blog goes out to them!

The Prized Peer Mentors

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While students were packing their bags to join us for this year’s Summer Institute at Georgia Tech, the Earth Tomorrow Peer Mentors were working feverishly like elves on Christmas Eve. The Earth Tomorrow Peer Mentors are college-bound past Summer Institute participants who have demonstrated leadership skills serving in their Earth Tomorrow school-based clubs. This year we accepted five outstanding mentors: Naomi, Elijah, Victoria, Deborah and Arely. They are more than just camp counselorsーthey are the first line of defense against any problems that may arise. If a student gets locked out of their room, a Peer Mentor will help them get back in. If a student left an item on the charter bus that’s gone for the day, the Peer Mentor will track the item down. If a student gets bitten or stung while doing a service project, the peer mentor can help. And if a student is a little standoffish and needs some convincing to try new things, I definitely call a peer mentor.

Peer Mentors play a critical role at the Earth Tomorrow Summer Institute by making sure that the students have what they need to be fully prepared for activities that start at 9:00 AM and could go until 9:00 PM some nights. They debrief with me at the end of the day and prepare for the next one. Yet even with all the long hours and hard work corralling students all day, the peer mentor position is never hard to fill. We often have to turn away great candidates each year because so many student participants respect the role and look forward to stepping in it when they graduate.

Naomi, who has been a peer mentor for two years after being a student participant for three, reflects on why she returns each summer:

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I continue to come back to Earth Tomorrow Summer Institute because I support the cause. I always learn something new and meet new people. At Earth Tomorrow Summer Institute you make a lot of connections and have the opportunity to network with so many great people. It’s a week of my summer I always look forward to and am sure to call off work for! 

She goes on to discuss the impact the program has had on her:

Since I’ve began participating I’m definitely more mindful of my contribution to waste. I’ve reduced the amount of single use plastic I use and purchased steel reusable straws. I recruit students from my old High School and community to participate in the camp. As I continue my journey to higher education at Florida A&M University this fall, I plan to start an ECO-Club and start up programs to make our campus greener! 

Arely, a Georgia State University Alumni, participated in Summer Institute for two consecutive years, then took a break but came back this year to help. She says:

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I studied biology at Georgia State University, and also participated in the school’s environmental club, The Sustainable Energy Tribe. What inspired me to do this was my continuous involvement with the National Wildlife Federation’s high school program, Earth Tomorrow. I attended their Summer Institute at Georgia Tech for two consecutive years; one year I was a student, and the other I was a peer mentor. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the activities in Summer Institute, and I like how there was a program that encouraged high schoolers to become involved in their communities. I came back this year as a peer mentor because I felt like I needed to be aware of current issues and I needed to reconnect with the sustainability movement going on today. This was especially true because I graduated and would no longer have the ability to participate in the college sustainability program. I plan to continue my participation with Summer Institute and the National Wildlife Federation in order to lead the future generations by example.”

The Cherished Contractors

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Thanks to funding support from the Turner Foundation, Inc. and Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, we were able to upgrade two of our more senior alumni from peer mentors to actual National Wildlife Federation-hired contractors this year! Julius and Joshua join the National Wildlife Federation family to work pre-, during, and post- Summer Institute. Both are great examples of students staying engaged long after their summer institute experience. Julius’s and Joshua’s stories are similar: They both started out as students in their Earth Tomorrow high school clubs, and soon rose to club leadership roles. As a result they participated in Summer Institute, and served as Peer Mentors after graduating high school ーbut both of them sought out another level of engagement. Watching their growth as they have emerged as leaders in the environment movement speaks to the success of the Earth Tomorrow program.

Josh had this to say when I asked him why he keeps coming back:

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I continue coming back to the Summer Institute because this has been the foundation of my career in environmental education. I would have never joined the fight for sustainability, if it wasn’t for the Earth Tomorrow Summer Institute. Conservation is a very adaptable cause. In other words, I learned you can be in any career and still fight for environmental awareness, sustainability, and environmental justice. I have to return to the Earth Tomorrow Summer Institute, so I can help pass along the message to younger generations that they have what it takes to become activists and environmental stewards.

Joshua is currently a psychology major with a focus in animal behavior at Morehouse College. Josh has this story to share about his career pathway since Summer Institute:

In 2017, a couple of weeks before going to college, I was offered and took a position as a lab assistant in animal behavior, which is a career that I am currently working towards. Within the same year I received an internship at Zoo Atlanta for the Conservation Education department before being hired a few days after completing my internship as a conservation educator. Currently, I am Vice President of Morehouse Moregreen, a sustainability based non-profit organization based at one of the most prominent HBCUs, Morehouse College. All of these accolades wouldn’t have been achieved without the engagements, lessons, and exposure from the Earth Tomorrow Summer Institute.

Last but not least, The Faithful Facilitator

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The Earth Tomorrow program has been fortunate enough to have one facilitator for our Summer Institute that’s been to all but one institute since the program’s inception. Mr. Brendon Barclay, the Director of Youth Programs for Friends of Refugees in Clarkston, GA, and a kayak “Experiences Team” instructor with REI, kicks off each summer program with a team-building exercise to get the students working together to solve a problem, typically related to the environment.

Why has he devoted so much time to Summer Institute? Here’s what he had to say:

I really love the work I do with the students as a team-building facilitator. The non-traditional way of engaging a group in a dialogue across differences pitting them in a way that ensures they will succeed in getting to know one another and each other’s perspectives, even if they don’t “succeed” at the task or activity.

I have been at all but one of the Earth Tomorrow Summer Institutes since 2003. I look forward to it each year. This year I was so blessed that even after getting stuck in post-holiday traffic coming back from out of town we were able to extend my time with the students into the night so they didn’t miss a beat. We also had a robust time together kayaking and camping, two of my other great joys to introduce students to. I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the students because it’s my life’s work.

Clearly, the true impact of the Earth Tomorrow program goes far beyond what happened the week of Summer Institute.

On a personal note:

I have so many more stories like this I could share about our super awesome Earth Tomorrow network. I want to THANK all of these wonderful people from the bottom of my heart. With these people helping the program, I know the Earth Tomorrow program will always be in good hands!

Credit: Sabatani Photo