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South LA teens get a taste of the island life at remote nature preserve

This summer, a small group of high school girls from South Los Angeles spent a month in one of the most remote nature preserves in the country as part of a program to get young people interested in science careers.

The girls stayed at Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura.

They're making $9 an hour to live and work on the island as part of The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program; that stands for “Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future.”

The LEAF program has been around nationally for 18 years, but this was the first time it was offered on the West Coast.

Fun, and a little work

There’s plenty of marine life to see on the one-hour journey out there — dolphins for sure, sometimes whales. Every day, dozens of tourists hitch a ride to the island aboard a two-deck catamaran that’s piloted by Captain David Corey.

Most tourists get off at the first stop to go hiking and camping at Scorpion Ranch. That’s national park land.

The rest of the Santa Cruz Island — three-quarters of it, in fact — is private. It belongs to The Nature Conservancy.

“Prisoner’s Harbor” is a pretty remote spot. There's no services at all, not even power lines.

Keira Adams is perched on a log next to Santa Cruz Island’s pebble-lined shore. She’s the first to point out that this isn’t your typical island.

“Even though we might think ‘island,’ you might think like tropical palm trees and stuff, but just coming out here, you experience something different," she said. “Sometimes you’ll see mountains and trees on the side, or going through these things that kind of look like caves, and you see different animals, such as a harbor seal or a sea lions."

Adams is one of seven teenage girls from Environmental Charter High School in South LA who spent part her summer on Santa Cruz Island as a Nature Conservancy intern.

The Nature Conservancy’s Alfredo Gonzalez said LEAF interns have fun while they’re on the island — they kayak and hike — but they’re here to work and to learn.

“I hope that the work would outweigh the fun. I mean, we’re looking at these kids as employees," he said. "But really, what we’re trying to do is expose these kids to this world, the natural world, and hopefully have them bring those lessons back and share them in their communities.”

LEAF intern Glenda Sanchez worked with environmental scientists to collect water and clear out invasive plants from freshwater ponds.

"It was a man-made wetland: they took out all the dirt, the water was groundwater. When they made it, nothing was living there," she said. "So what we’re going to do is find out what kinds of animals reside in the wetland."

LEAF intern Lenie Ventura said they also got to see scientists give vaccinations to island foxes.

“They were trying to preserve the number of foxes because of the golden eagle, which was an invasive species that came inside the island," she said. "They started eating the foxes, so there was almost a verge of being an extinction.”

Ventura said after the scientists finish vaccinating the foxes, they release them back into the wild.

Changing minds about nature

The Nature Conservancy’s Gonzalez said they’ve kept track of the teenage interns who’ve finished the LEAF program.

He said about a third of them pursue environmental jobs after college and more than half volunteer for environmental causes in their communities.

LEAF intern Glenda Sanchez wants to do both.

After she’s done with high school next year, she plans to go to college to be an environmental engineer. For now, she’s looking forward to sharing what she’s learned on Santa Cruz Island with some of her “city friends.”

“Most of them have never been out of the city and they’ve never hiked or gone camping. They’ve never seen this type of wildlife I’ve seen," she said. "Telling them ‘let’s go camping,’ that might change their minds about going into nature and just seeing what’s out there.”