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Devil’s Den in Weston turns over a new LEAF

Devil’s Den has some special summer visitors — and they’re not black bears, coyotes or deer.

The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) has hired four high school interns, Stanella Duff, Kalina Nelson, Cynthia Chan and Yangstel Sheraf, from New York City to work and spend time in Weston’s renowned nature preserve.

The LEAF program has been around for 18 years, and this is the second time it has been hosted at Devil’s Den. LEAF has put 100 students from environmental high schools across the country to work as interns this summer. The Weston interns hail from schools with scientific or technical focus, and are geared towards pursuing scientific and or environmental careers. For many, LEAF provides experience that would not have been possible without the program, as the students they hire are from urban environments.

The LEAF program gives students the opportunity to work with scientists from the Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s most prominent conservation organizations. The main goals of the program include protecting and conserving natural habitats and giving environmentally conscious students hands on experience and the taste of a potential career.

Projects the interns are tackling at Devil’s Den include trail clearing, erosion control, the planting of native trees, and making both hiking and emergency access trails more accessible.

Mark Mainieri, who has worked at Devil’s Den for four years and serves as the site supervisor for the interns, has viewed their work as extremely productive for the preserve. “They really are a great, hardworking group. They are independent and interested in what they are doing and for many the program provides a new exposure to nature as they all come from the city,” Mr. Mainieri said.

The interns

The interns became aware of the LEAF program through information available at their schools.

Stanella Duff, from the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment, is considering studying criminology and saw posters in her school advertising the program. She was intrigued because she had done similar work for Audubon New York.

Kalina Nelson of The Green School wants to attend medical school someday, and was approached by a teacher who believed she would do well in the program because she is environmentally conscious.

Intern Cynthia Chan from Stuyvesant High School said she would like to study environmental science in college and that interest led her to LEAF.

Yangstel Sheraf of the High School for Environmental Studies plans to attend the University of Vermont in the fall and someday would like to participate in the Doctors Without Borders program.

The interns arrived on July 9, and will be working at Devil’s Den until early August. However, Devil’s Den is not the only preserve at which they are working. They also spend time at Sunny Valley Preserve in New Milford, and the Katherine Ordway Preserve, which is also in Weston.

The interns are living in college dormitories provided by the Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. They believe that living and working together has been the most rewarding part of the LEAF experience. “It’s very much a team effort. We have to understand what other people are doing constantly, be careful of our surroundings and keep an eye out for everyone.” said Cynthia Chan. “After a long day of work it’s great to be living with friends,” she said.

Yangstel Sheraf is appreciative of what the program has given back to her. “While we’re doing work it’s a challenging experience but at the end of the day there is such a large sense of accomplishment for what we’ve done that day,” she said.

The interns’ schedule is a busy workday from 8 to 3:30, although they have free time on the weekends. As most of the interns are juniors in high school and in the middle of their college searches, the program also provides visits to colleges in the area. The interns have visited Yale University, Wesleyan University, SUNY New Paltz and Vassar College.

Iemanja Brown, who is the group’s mentor, has enjoyed living and working with her interns. “They’re all very excited about what’s going on,” she said. “It’s great that they get the opportunity to learn that scientists don’t only work in labs, they’re also in the field.”

Mr. Mainieri said that after the success LEAF has brought to Devil’s Den this year, he looks forward to continuing the program in the summers to come.

“It’s important that we get these kids excited about working in the environment and encourage them to become the next generation of scientists,” he said.

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