SAGE: Connecting Young Adults to Nature Through Service

The bitter cold is still hanging on for now, but preparations for summertime will be underway before we know it. Warmer weather means countless chances to get to the Garden, and for young adults interested in the natural world, the SAGE (Students as Garden Educators) program offers an opportunity to spend a productive summer out in the sun.

What is the SAGE Program?

SAGE gives high school-aged volunteers the chance to learn about the natural world and to work as environmental educators. Participants work in the Children’s Garden, where they lead educational activities about native species and local habitats for the children who visit.

The program was founded in 2009 to offer young volunteers a more engaging experience of working at the Garden. “If you’re at the garden, you probably want to work with plants rather than being in an office making copies and printing stuff off,” says Jennifer Laquet, Garden Interpretation Specialist and coordinator of the SAGE program. “The goal of the program when it was founded was to get teens involved in environmental education and give them work skills that were more aligned with the garden’s mission.”

No kid wants to spend their summer in an office. “SAGE gets the kids outside and really makes them feel more connected to the garden,” Laquet says. Volunteers work at the “germination stations” in the Children’s Garden, where they lead hands-on educational activities. They get to teach the children all about pollinators, the caves of Missouri, sustainability, native trees and wildlife, how to grow fruits and vegetables, and more. “A lot of these students start off pretty shy. They don’t have a lot of practice with public speaking, so it is a new experience for them,” Laquet observes. “Just seeing them become a little more comfortable talking with the public and building up those communication skills as they’re heading into college or the workforce is really rewarding.”

Who Can Participate in SAGE?

The program is designed for young adults ages 14-18 who are interested in learning more about the environment and excited to share their knowledge with others. It’s a great way to add leadership and volunteer experience to resumes and college applications.

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A SAGE volunteer works with visitors at the Pot-A-Plant station, an activity that the Children’s Garden hosts for special events. Photo provided by Missouri Botanical Garden Interpretation Department.

Laquet sees firsthand how much students of the program grow. She mentions a student named Zach, who was dead set on computer science when he entered the program; now he’s talking about designing environmentally educational computer programs. Laquet also recalls students like Trayvon and Winston, both of whom spent all four years of their high school career at SAGE. “I got to see [Winston] literally grow in the program,” Laquet says. “When he started he was just a small freshman. By the time he graduated, he was much taller of course, but also throughout the whole program I just saw him grow in his public speaking skills, become so much more comfortable with talking with people, starting conversations, really engaging visitors in the topics that he was talking about.” SAGE participants seem to agree,  having said in their feedback that they find the program educational and rewarding.

What’s New to the Program This Summer?

Laquet says that one of the challenges of previous years has been finding things for volunteers to do on days when that dreaded St. Louis heat keeps visitors away. This year when the Children’s Garden is slow, SAGE volunteers will get a taste of field biology work. Students will record sightings of native plants and animals using iNaturalist, a “citizen science app” that functions as a database for civilian observations of plants and animals that can be recorded and then confirmed and referenced by certified biologists who also use the app. This way, SAGE participants can use their downtime to get a taste of a totally different kind of environmental work.

How Can I Apply?

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A SAGE volunteer talks with a young visitor to Tree Trunk Pavilion, one of the stations at the Children’s Garden. Photo provided by Missouri Botanical Garden Interpretation Department.

Applications opened on February 1, 2019 and are due by April 28. Students who participate will be required to attend an orientation and to volunteer at least 50 hours between May and October.

If you’ve already got other obligations this summer, don’t worry—Garden staff is happy to work with you on scheduling. “The scheduling was very easy and flexible,” writes one former volunteer. “SAGE was super fun. I would recommend it. It gave me a chance to give back to the community, and the people you meet are great, too.”

If you know a student looking for something rewarding to do this summer, you can find out more information about the SAGE program here or click here to apply.

Kristina Schall DeYong
Digital Media Intern

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