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US Forest Service Connects Milwaukee Kids to Nature

The Urban Connections program isn’t new. It’s been providing city kids with a taste – that the Forest Service results in a passion for the natural world, even in a world that’s mostly paved.

But Milwaukee is unique among its fellow urban connections’ cities of Boston, Detroit and the Twin Cities. It’s the only place the Forest Service dispatches teams of interns to work with kids of all ages in the summer.

Places like Tiefenthaler Park, northwest of downtown Milwaukee.

Credit S Bence
Interns Cassie Cibik (far left) and Kelsey Woloszyk (back right) prepare kids to explore park in search of habitat and wildlife.

That’s where Cassie Cibik sits crossed legged with a circle of 7 and 8 year olds.

They're part of a summer program called Lake Valley Camp.

Cibik is one of four U.S. Forest Service interns who have worked with kids of various ages, in various spaces throughout the summer, today with the Lake  Valley Camper.

“Right now we’re going to go for a little hike, we’re going to search for animal habitat.” Cibik explains to the kids.

The interns’ mission is to spark interest in the environment – they hope will last.

Cibik – who’ll be heading her OWN classroom when school starts up this fall - is casting a spell of nature exploration.

“What kind of animal habitat do you think we’ll find in this park,” she asks.

Cibik leads her crew in and out of the sun-soaked landscape. They run through dappled sunlight created by occasional trees.

“So we are going to give you binoculars and we’re going to investigate with our eyes and our ears,” she says.

Credit S Bence
Taylor Ruffin in action.

Taylor Ruffin is one of her coworkers. The recent UW-Stevens Point grad corals the other half of campers. His mission is to create pine cone bird feeders.

“So can you get two line? We’re going to have you roll your pinecones, roll it in the sesame seed butter, then dunk it in seeds, shake it out,” Ruffin says.

Some kids proudly display their creations. Others aren’t so sure they like the gooey sesame seed butter fingered side effect.

Fellow Forest Service Intern Darren Madison distracts them.

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“I’m a bird feeder guys. I’ll become a tree, who wants to become a tree with me,” he coaxes.

Madison throws is arms in the air, hanging a pinecone feeder from one of his fingers. Campers follow suit. Together they sway in an imaginary breeze.

Soon, Taylor Ruffin rounds up the entire flock of children and has their arms flapping in a NEW activity. “Migration headache” is a variation on musical chairs. The kids rush to make it inside a hoola hoop that represents habitat.

“So not all of you made it to your migration habitat in the south, there wan’t enough habitat for all of you,” Ruffin syas.

It’s unclear how profoundly the “lost habitat” message struck the kids, as Ruffin quickly “morphs” the young naturalists from, bird, to bears scrambling for a good space to live..

“Okay, I want you all to run on all fours – just like a bear does,” he says.

Credit S Bence

Then, for a quick lesson about forest fire prevention, Ruffin introduces a guest bear.

“ So I called up the forest and asked if Smokey could visit….have you ever hear of Smokey Bear,” he says.

The kids are beside themselves with delight. You hear it in 2nd grader Melanie Apolinar’s voice. She’d never met Smokey before.

Did she hug him or shake his paw?

“I did everything to him,” Apolinar giggles.

Don’t tell anyone, but intern Darren Madison was the spirit within the Smokey costume.

The Milwaukee native discovered nature when he was ten years old. A friend introduced him to an outdoor and conservation program in Washington Park…

“He said, hey do you want to hang out in the Urban Ecology Center. And I said, ‘what’s that.” And they had this beautiful animal room with snakes, and frogs and turtles and they said, you can hold the turtle and I said ‘oh my gosh,” Madison says.

Madison calls himself one of the fortunate few.

“Something that an urban youth would never get that experience right in the middle of the city. Jjust having that exposure gave me that love and passion for environmental science,” he says.

The youngest of this summer’s batch of Forest Service team, Madison is about to head into his first year of college ….

“Howard University in DC. I’m going to major in political science and environmental studies so I can go into environmental law. And then if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll run for office and push environmental policies that will help a lot of our natural resources,” he says.

Madison is aiming high, but promises spending time with kids outside will remain a part of his life.

“Even if I do have a position where I don’t have time, I’ll make time,” he says.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.