Project Zero interns also shared values of conservation with East County community

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND GENERAL ELECTRIC  - PGEs Project Zero interns help in forest restoration at Nadaka Park in Gresham. With growing fears of climate change and its effects on the Pacific Northwest, Portland General Electric is attempting to face those challenges through its Project Zero internship that allows young adults to experiment with and learn about environment-specific careers.

Ellie Taylor was one of those interns. Taylor was paired with the nonprofit Play Grow Learn as she taught East County children about the environment by removing invasive species and planting native ones at Nadaka Nature Park in Gresham.

"The entire purpose of this program is because climate change is here and we have to face that," said Taaj Armstrong, PGE Project Zero dean of cohort. "And the way we do that is working with underserved communities to make that change. We understand that people of color and low income people are the first affected by climate change and are often not represented in these organizations."

PGE started the program in 2020 and Taylor's cohort is only Project Zero's second group of interns. The six month program chooses interns to work with environmentally focused nonprofits.

The program works to recruit opportunity youth, which are young adults disconnected from work and school. Armstrong said there has also been a large push to prioritize offering this opportunity to BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and low income individuals.

"We look to have about 50 percent of our interns to reflect one of those demographics (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, low income)," said Kimberly Howard Wade, the Project Zero director. "This year we have 75%."

'A rewarding experience'

Taylor, who was originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, moved to Oregon in February. Her stay in Oregon was a struggle as she became homeless. Taylor connected with Project Zero and was accepted into the program.

Working with Play Grow Learn and the city of Gresham's Environmental Services, Taylor and another intern removed invasive species and planted native plants like Oregon grey and swamp rose at Nadaka Park, while also teaching East County children about environmental stewardship.

"One of my favorite parts of the program would be the connections we made between us and the community of Gresham and Rockwood," Taylor said. "A lot of the kids we were working with came from disadvantaged home lives and to offer some stability while also teaching them how they can better their community through stewardship was just great."

During the internship the group also had days where they focused on specific themes with their fellow interns like equity and also took trips to visit other environmentally focused organizations to learn about careers there. To give interns more one-on-one help, they are also paired with mentors who help the interns with some of the growing pains of returning back to a more structured environment while also providing comfort and guidance throughout the program. Mentors even stay with the interns three months after the program has ended to help with their job search.

Noelle Saint-Cyr only recently started working with PGE as a transportation project manager, but when she heard about the opportunity to be a mentor she jumped at the opportunity. She ended up working with Taylor as her mentor/champion.

"I helped her as she returned to the workforce, which isn't an easy thing," said Saint-Cyr. "I just have to say it was such a rewarding experience to see her grow."

Taylor had the same sentiment. "I honestly don't know how I would have gotten through this program without Noelle," Taylor said. "She was the one that I vented to, and also just offered so many tips."

Starting a career

Now that Taylor's internship has concluded she is making plans to get her career started. She is thinking of going to community college to get a certificate to work in waste water treatment after a trip the group took got her invested in the work that is being done at Clackamas Water Environment Services.

However, Taylor believes the most impactful thing that Project Zero did for her was bring people unfamiliar with the field and make connections to people in those careers. "This program offers you an opportunity to make connections," Taylor said. "You are often required to have previous experience. But this internship gives me the ability to meet many different people in these fields that I am interested in."

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