YLEAP helps youth, environment grow

Ann Nghiem enjoys the transformation the Bolsa Chica Wetlands undergo each season.

Like the wetlands, Nghiem, 18, has transformed in a year's time after participating in the inaugural session of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy's Youth Leadership in Environmental Action Program (YLEAP) last year, according to Michelle Moberly, communications and development manager.

The yearlong youth leadership program teaches high school students about the wetlands, how to interact with large groups and other life skills.

"[Nghiem] was quiet and reserved," Moberly said. "Now she's bubbly, outgoing and a little more talkative. She was forced, so to speak, through YLEAP to interact and understand what she's talking about."

Nghiem has volunteered for the Conservancy since her sophomore year in high school and subsequently signed up for YLEAP, a program for eighth- through 12th-graders, last year, she said. The recent Marina High School graduate finds the outdoors fascinating and is even more appreciative of the 1,200 acres of Bolsa Chica after spending so much time there.

She signed up again for YLEAP's second year starting in August.

"A lot of it is restoration work and picking up trash or pulling weeds, but the scenery's nice and the people here are chill," Nghiem said. "But as you learn more and more about it, you start to fall in love with it."

Students also go out to various community events where they talk to the public about the group's efforts and give tours of the wetlands, Moberly said.

"They're Bolsa Chica's face to the community, she said.

Before students can do any of that, they go through at least a week of training, learning about what the Conservancy does and the ecology of the wetlands, Moberly said.

Nghiem said her favorite event she attended was the fundraising gala the Conservancy held in June at Quiksilver's headquarters.

"It was fun talking to people that are actually there to help and supporting this," she said.

Having been involved with the group for a couple of years, Nghiem started joining other programs the Conservancy offers. She also volunteers with the Eyes on Nest Sites program, helping monitor endangered birds, like the least tern and the Western snowy plover, she said.

"I thought birding was for old people and now I'm totally into different kinds of birds," Nghiem said.

Now that the first year of the program has wrapped, Moberly said YLEAP's purpose has evolved.

"Initially we wanted to teach the students about being an environmental leader," she said. "But what we found they got out of it was what it takes to be a leader: the soft skills, the interacting with people, being able to explain your point."

When she isn't helping picking up trash, giving tours or attending events, Nghiem likes to bring people to the wetlands.

"I take guys on dates here all the time," she said, laughing. "I'm like, 'Hey, we need to digest after lunch. Let's walk up the wetlands.' It works and it's a conversation starter, too."

For more information on YLEAP, go to bolsachica.org/leadership/yleap.

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