Courtney Masterson, owner of Native Lands LLC, demonstrates a prescribed burning to youth learning conservation skills through the Heartland Conservation Alliance. Photo by Magali Rojas.

Two large grants not only help teens ageing out of foster care, but improve the Blue River Watershed as well

“We are helping young Kansas Citians who are aging out of the foster care system find jobs in the conservation field, and they will be prepared for a number of careers. “

By Colette Panchot

Supporting youth in foster care as they transition from teenagers to productive adults is the focus of local organizations like Cornerstones of Care and Heartland Conservation Alliance.  

These organizations are collaborating on two grants worth nearly $400,000 to restore the Blue River Watershed. 

The first grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation established the Nature Action Crew in 2021. More recently, an April 2022 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, The Brownfields Job Training Grant, is preparing at least 50 youth for careers in conservation. 

On April 20, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 7 presented a nearly $200,000 check to the Heartland Conservation Alliance  for a Brownfields Job Training Grant. HCA plans to use the funding to train more than 50 students, at least half of whom will be placed in environmental jobs after completing the program. Photo credit EPA.

“We are helping young Kansas Citians who are aging out of the foster care system find jobs in the conservation field, and they will be prepared for a number of careers. We hope that some will apply for positions with HCA, where they will receive even more training in the field,” HCA executive director Logan Healey said of the Brownfields Job Training Grant

Starting in April, the HCA has been engaging small groups of youth from the Cornerstone of Care’s Build Trybe program in 10-week periods. They are mentored by members of HCA’s Nature Action Crew, who provide them real-world ecological experiences, offering a better understanding of how the Blue River affects the region and the neighborhoods surrounding the river.

The term “brownfield” refers to land that has been developed for industrial purposes—potentially polluted, and then abandoned. Such areas can compromise the rivers, streams, and creeks that feed the Missouri River, the main water source for our region.

Teens in the Nature Action Crew plant bushes at Monarch Plaza in the urban core. Photo by Magali Rojas

Nature Action Crew leader Magali Rojas said the grant program’s service-learning model has proven effective.

“We are planting a seed in their mind: why it is important to care for the earth.” 

Rojas, who holds a bachelor’s degree in information systems, as well as a graduate-level certificate in environmental justice, says she hopes the youth will not only learn job skills, but will understand how environmental injustice disproportionately affects neighborhoods where Black, Indigenous, and people of color live.

The Mid-America Regional Council defines the Blue River as a regional asset with great potential that travels through more than 20 miles of suburban and urban neighborhoods, industrial areas, brownfields, wetlands, and forest. However, the river has been hit by the negative impact of decades of flooding, loss of habitat, and illegal dumping.

To remedy this imbalance, the youth volunteers and their mentors remove invasive species like honeysuckle that crowd out native plants and destroy animal habitats. They plant native trees to reduce stormwater runoff. Volunteers also learn life skills like public speaking and resume writing, and receive online training in proper handling of hazardous materials.

Stacey Davis held a class on archery, which the Crew participated in as a fun learning activity which taught them precision and patience.
Photo credit Missouri Department of Conservation

On May 5, Cornerstones of Care opened another source of career opportunities for underserved and homeless youth and children in foster care with its maker space at 606 E. 31st St.  

Sponsored by Stanley Black & Decker’s Empower Makers grant, the space offers opportunities for these youth to learn construction and manufacturing skills to fill the 650,000 open construction jobs in the United States and the 10 million unfilled manufacturing jobs across the globe. 

Cornerstones of Care’s most urgent need is finding foster parents. To aid this effort, they are hosting Tailgate Trivia on June 25. Visit for more information. 

Heartland Conservation Alliance invites Kansas Citians to explore their local parks and trails along the Blue River Watershed during its “Summer Adventure Challenge.” Information on this program and others can be found at





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