Dec 18

“I want to be a beacon”

By Kevin Hamilton, vice president for communications at the Student Conservation Association.

Welcome to the first post in our new blog series about the vital role that out-of-school time programs play in the social, emotional, and character development that youth need to navigate a complex, interconnected world. This series is made possible through generous support from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

Ranger Rece and colleauges at the Pittsburgh Parks & Recreation Department

It was about this time last year, at the height of the holiday season, that AmaRece Davis’ email popped up on my screen.

“I just want to thank SCA again,” he wrote, “and let you know that I’m living the dream.”

Few would have predicted that outcome just a few years ago. AmaRece, however, never had a doubt.

Rece, as he’s known, grew up in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. It’s a tough neighborhood. Lots of poverty, lots of crime. By the time Rece was 15, his two older brothers were in prison and, he admits, he was headed in that same direction. Things took a turn that summer, however, when Rece joined the Student Conservation Association (SCA)’s local crew program. SCA, an organization perhaps best known for placing teen and young adult volunteers in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, also provides opportunities to participate in environmental-focused programs for urban youth in America’s leading cities.

For several weeks, Rece and other socially and economically diverse high school students teamed up to build trails, clear brush, and plant trees in Pittsburgh parks. They learned about the environment, gained work skills, and earned a regular – if modest – paycheck. Rece re-upped for SCA’s school-year initiative and again the following summer, though he concedes “neither my life nor my attitude changed very much.”

The next year, however, during summer vacation, a last-minute opening developed on an SCA crew at Sequoia National Park in California and Rece grabbed it. The work was much the same – sweat-inducing, muscle-taxing trail construction – but now Rece was more than halfway across the country. Instead of returning home at the end of each workday, he prepared meals, conversed for hours with peers and adults, and camped in tents with other high schoolers from all corners of the U.S. Rece found it to be both eye-opening and empowering.

A recent study by the Search Institute, an international authority on what youth need to succeed, found that the experiences that youth had in SCA programs strengthen individual development and reinforce a wide array of social-emotional skills that foster optimal advancement and lifelong growth. In these programs, youth develop self-awareness, decision-making, and emotional competence, spurred by factors such as inspiring outdoor settings, meaningful hands-on work, and the need to function within a team. While many educators struggle to teach these so-called “soft” skills in a classroom environment, SCA has long been harnessing the natural environment to build character in young people.

By coincidence, Rece reached his 18th birthday while at Sequoia National Park, and as his crew took a break from rebuilding a worn section of trail, Rece gazed up at the giant trees towering over him.

“I thought about all of my friends and relatives who had never been out of Pittsburgh,” he says, “and of others who hadn’t even survived to be 18.”

In that moment, Rece had found something larger than himself, both literally and figuratively.

He returned home a different person. Rece had never thought much about litter (except when he had to clean it up in Pittsburgh city parks) but in his final year at Westinghouse High School, he started a waste reprocessing program that earned him the nickname “Recycling Rece.”

“Our school had some of the lowest test scores in the country. No one expected much from the kids who went there — and believe me, the students knew it,” he states. “But they saw what I was doing and offered to help and prove the skeptics wrong.”

The following year, Rece enrolled in community college and took a part time job with the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium before interning for a summer at the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City, part of SCA’s National Park Service Academy and a career-training initiative.

But Rece had no intention of leaving his hometown behind; quite the opposite. He was determined to “come back to the neighborhood that gave me my start, and lead by example.” In Homewood, he says, “opportunities for young people are few, and role models are even fewer. That’s exactly why I plan to stay here. I want to be a beacon for young people and help them understand that we do have chances to live a better life — we just have to look for them a little bit harder than people who grow up elsewhere.”

And so he took another SCA internship, apprenticing with the Pittsburgh Parks & Recreation Department. A few months later, the email arrived. Rece’s journey had led to a full-time job in a field he loved. “I would just like to thank SCA again and let you know that I’m living the dream now as one of the first African-American park rangers for the City of Pittsburgh.” 

The message was signed: Ranger Rece.