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If you are between the ages of 17 and 30, Ben Simoni wants to hire you.

As the executive director of the Youth Climate Corps, this 32-year-old provides young people with living-wage jobs that include training, certifications, networks and future employment opportunities while implementing local solutions to the climate crisis.

This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are addressing the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.

Ben Simoni climbing in the Kootenays. Photo by Tom Suddaby

Tell us about your project.

In 2020, Nelson B.C.-based grassroots organization Wildsight asked if the multiple crises of climate change, youth unemployment and declining mental health among young people might be an opportunity for local action on climate change. With the support of the City of Nelson and senior levels of government, they hired 20 youth for six months and paid them a living wage to work on climate change mitigation or adaptation projects identified as priorities by the community.

The program also helped them identify career paths and skills and networks to pursue them.

The project is now in its third season in Nelson and has expanded to Cranbrook. The work in wildfire risk reduction, flood control and wetland enhancement is making a real difference. We have a crew installing weather stripping and adding insulation to improve the energy efficiency of a long-term care facility for disabled adults. Another crew is growing food in fire breaks to both reduce fire risk and increase food security.

Everyone wins. The young people experience making a difference and receive training, certificates, networking and job readiness skills to find permanent work or higher education. Municipalities benefit from energetic, well-trained help implementing climate protection. Nelson gave the Youth Climate Corps its 2020 sustainability leadership award. Communities benefit from engaged youth who feel supported and welcomed. Everyone benefits when young people learn confidence in the public sector.

The project is now in its third season in Nelson and has expanded to Cranbrook. The work in wildfire risk reduction, flood control and wetland enhancement is making a real difference. #YouthClimateAction #YouthClimateCorps

We are scaling up. The demand for positions in the Corps heavily exceeds openings. Municipalities want to take action to protect their residents and this makes it easy to get their chosen projects completed without having to incur additional overhead.

There is so much work to do. Alumni can be leaders of the next cohort and learn administration skills while they liaise with city officials. Artists and musicians can create images of a positive future to brighten municipal streetscapes and attract visitors. Young people can provide company and services to isolated seniors at risk from extreme weather events and orientation support for newcomers. Millions of homes could benefit from basic retrofits. All of these are opportunities for increasing everyone’s well-being while contending with the multiple crises we face.

Ben Simoni hiking in Qat'muk. Photo by Melissa Lavery

How did you get involved?

When I was 16, I went on a canoe trip to Algonquin Park with a friend, Cam. It was a big deal to be away from adults, self-reliant for two weeks. We canoed in the rain, cooked each other meals (some more edible than others), swam and endured mosquitoes on long portages. The experience ignited a love of wild spaces and it also allowed me to experience being part of a high-functioning team as we instinctively fell into co-leading roles, aware of an overwhelming sense of responsibility for ourselves and each other.

I worked in outdoor education for a decade. It was not uncommon for me to lead a group into a glaciated landscape and for the glacier to have receded radically from where the map said it would be. Forest fires, flooding and droughts meant we often rearranged expeditions. The youth with whom I was working were carrying the weight of this and it was affecting their well-being. I could see the potential for young people to make a significant contribution while developing skills and leadership. I enrolled in a master’s program in environmental leadership at Royal Roads University in order to increase my sphere of influence. One of my peers told me about the Youth Climate Corps and it sounded like a perfect fit.

What makes your work hard?

Much of our work is focused on youth development, leadership, and mental health. This is hard to quantify and often overlooked.

We have to have help with core funding. We hope governments will see the desirability of supporting this concept as municipalities will more easily see their preferred projects implemented if we recruit, train and develop young people to do the work.

Hot drinks on the Wapta Traverse. Photo by Grace Henecka

What do you see if we get this right?

The far right has been doing a great job creating a sense of belonging for young people who feel alienated from the public sphere. We offer a terrific alternative that will see an entire generation of young people making a difference that aligns with their values, rebuilding trust in government and the public sector and implementing community-designed improvements

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Look for joy and allow time and space to take care of yourself. This is a long journey. Learning resilience is part of making a contribution.

What would you like to say to older readers?

Don’t wait to align your time, energy, influence, votes and financial resources with your values.

Keep reading

I worked in Katimavik in 1980-83. Also a time of high inflation, low employment. this sounds like exactly what NOW needs… a Katimavik-like community oriented youth adventure… but with pay and certificates for a boost into a future
Please lets get going with it in Ontario. ( cant hope for provincial funding on this though…. building community?? no f*n way douggie is going too help with THAT! )

so who will give money to make this happen? cities perhaps?