Gentle waves lap against their kayaks as three teenagers paddle toward colorful specks luring them to the water’s edge. They’re on the hunt for garbage, and it’s not hard to find: Bottle caps, a tennis ball — even a few disposable masks — float like freakish lily pads on the southernmost point of Seattle’s Lake Union.
Ducks move smoothly across the surface, dipping their heads under every now and then in search of food, as 16-year-old Hannah Park and 17-year-olds Yafet Amine and Quinn Tracy scour the shallows for trash.
This summer, Park, Amine and Tracy are among two dozen mostly South King County youth learning to be stewards of the environment.
They clean urban lakes during kayak patrols, plant trees, learn field mapping skills and test water quality in streams and rivers on state parks and public lands. They’re on water or trails several days each month. They’re paid $15 an hour for the work — enough to keep most of them from having to take other part- or full-time jobs that would otherwise consume their days — and they’re getting leadership training so they can help lead conservation and pollution prevention efforts in the future.
Terrell Dorsey, whose graying goatee frames a wide smile, paddles alongside them. He heads the organization that’s brought everyone together today — a nonprofit called Unleash the Brilliance, which helps kids with trauma or hardships in their background stay in school. He offers encouraging words when the kids stash pollution in oversized garbage bags.
“We pour positive affirmations like we pour syrup on a pancake,” he says.
Unleash the Brilliance was recently awarded a $150,000 state grant to expand its outdoor program from 24 to 100 students next summer. The organization won the largest award possible through the state’s No Child Left Inside grant program, which funds nature and conservation opportunities for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access; in 2018, the group was also awarded $1.1 million through a Best Starts for Kids grant, a voter-approved levy that funds a wide range of youth health, education and social service programs.
Until Dorsey came into their lives, nature never beckoned to these teens.
Even if it had, most of them would have faced high hurdles to getting outside.
Many of the youth involved in Unleash the Brilliance have faced early adverse experiences “on steroids,” says Dorsey. Amine was peer pressured into regularly using drugs in middle school; his grades and relationship with his parents tanked. Park’s family faced bankruptcy. Other youth bore witness to their parents’ addictions, moved around a lot or lived in extreme poverty. Some have a history of being incarcerated, skipping class or facing delays graduating from high school.
Dorsey sees them for their potential. Don’t call them “at-risk.” They’re “at-promise,” he says.
Unleash the Brilliance was founded in 2008. Dorsey and his staff organize student workshops and other events that help youth take back control of their academic lives — many have a history of truancy or failing classes. Since its creation, these programs have served hundreds of students, Dorsey said.
The organization partners with other groups, such as Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, on other activities, like the kayak patrol.
Amine, Park and Tracy intend to help lead the organization’s expansion.
Out on Lake Union that mid-July day, the teens see the bigger picture. Cleaning up the lake — that’s been an important environmental stewardship goal for years. Anna Bachmann, healthy watershed program manager for Puget Soundkeeper Alliance who partners with Dorsey on the kayak cleanup, explains why.
“This used to be a very industrial lake at one point,” said Bachmann, who shares a story: Workers used to walk across the street and dump old machinery in the lake. Sunken vessels live at its depths, too.
Park, an incoming junior at Auburn High, paddles toward a target: a plastic bag full of chips. Within an hour, she collects tiny pieces of Styrofoam, a bunch of plastic bags and pop bottles. “This is a lot today,” she says.
Until a few weeks ago, these youth spent nearly every hour indoors in front of screens learning remotely.
If not for Unleash the Brilliance, there was no guarantee they’d spend any time away from phones or computers during the summer, too.
Kayaking is brand new to Park. During a typical summer, she said, “all I do is just sit in my bed and I’m on my phone all day.” When school shut down last year, Park withdrew from her friends, felt tired all the time and felt constant dread about her school assignments. She found out about Unleash the Brilliance this spring after months alone at home during the pandemic — her mother, an immigrant from Mongolia, works the night shift at a restaurant in a casino; her dad, an immigrant from South Korea, has long hours packaging Amazon deliveries.
In 2007, the beginning of the financial crash, her parents lost their restaurant, filed for bankruptcy and moved in with Park’s cousins for a while before eventually buying their own place. Park hasn’t opened up about that season of her life to other youth in Unleash the Brilliance, but she knows many of them have lived through tough years, too.
Dorsey, a Portland native and the son of two post office employees, is often his students’ first call when they need help at home. He’s helped de-escalate family fights or offered youth space — even just a lunch out — to give them a breather from stress. His organization has created workbooks for parents with ideas about how to manage family conflict during the pandemic.
The work outside is only part of the program — working on their own personal growth is also important, Dorsey said. The other week, Dorsey was driving Park and other youth home after a day outside when one teenage girl asked for advice about how to respond to a text from her father, who wasn’t really present in her life. Dorsey started a deep conversation, and Park and other students chimed in with their own thoughts.
How can students succeed in school, Dorsey thinks, when their home life is so chaotic?
Giving them reason to believe in themselves helps, he says.
The program emphasizes leadership skills like public speaking; Park was part of a small group of students who helped present the grant proposal that won Unleash the Brilliance’s recent $150,000 award. The students end up modeling and reinforcing each other’s positive behaviors. And many of them have become close friends, or recruited friends to join.
Amine is an incoming senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in the Federal Way school district. He joined Unleash the Brilliance during his freshman year when a good friend, a member of the organization, invited him. “I know you are struggling,” he remembers the friend saying. “It will honestly change your life.”
As a child, Amine was curious and eager to ask questions of his teachers, and for help from his older brothers.
But as an adolescent, he felt peer pressure to start drinking and smoking marijuana. He stopped knowing the answers in class and he stopped asking questions. He lied to his parents, both nurses at Harborview, about his falling grades. When his report card came in, his dad was so upset he decided to change his schedule to a night shift so he could stay home during the day to keep a closer watch on Amine.
“It kind of hurt because I realized I’m not only affecting me, I’m affecting my dad and my family,” he said. “When I screw up, they have to pay the price.”
His behavior, he says, was a “trap” of his own creation.
Dorsey asked Amine if he’d be willing to share his story. An Unleash the Brilliance workshop was coming up and a bunch of families were planning to bring their kids, many of whom were facing challenges like truancy and drug use — just like Amine.
Amine was nervous. He’s shy, he’d never talked in public, and he could feel the parents’ watchful eyes.
Many of the kids in the audience had their heads down.
Amine thought they might be embarrassed, or that they assumed he and all the other presenters were “straight A students.”
“We have struggles too,” Amine told them. “We still do.” The kids in the crowd suddenly paid attention.
Amine is getting used to using his hard-work muscles again. The summer after ninth grade, he helped plant 120 trees — the “most work” he’d ever done. He’s sure the care he’s learned to give for plants and animals has guided his thoughts about his future. Like his parents, he hopes to become a nurse.
Dorsey keeps him motivated, Amine says. Dorsey has shared his own story — he dropped out of high school, went to prison on drug-related charges more than 20 years ago, worked minimum wage jobs much of his life — and is open with the youth about how those consequences have marked his path.
He created Unleash the Brilliance while working full time for a computer wholesaler, he said. At his job, he noticed younger employees with graduate degrees were making twice his wage. It dawned on him that his early missteps might keep him from moving up or earning a better living. He was motivated to keep kids from following a path like his own.
Dorsey has four children of his own. But he often talks about Unleash the Brilliance students as “his kids,” too.
Bachmann, who leads the Lost Urban Creeks Project and takes the lead on the environmental education portion of its summer outdoor program, says she tends to gravitate toward teens whose body language says “I’m not interested.” She’s proud of her icebreaking skills — before the kayak cleanup, she gets everyone to circle up and name their favorite animal — but the true power of the program is youth talking to other youth, she says.
Many of the youth have competing pressures that keep them from participating as often as they’d like. Rarely, when a family emergency comes up — a parent gets sick, for instance — they might disappear entirely, Bachmann says.
It smells like rain as the teens paddle back to docks on the lake’s west side. Then, it smells like cigars. Near the water’s edge, a trio of smokers taps ash into pavement.
Not 10 feet away, the youth begin consolidating their own trash into a single bright yellow garbage bag.
They weigh their spoils: seven pounds. Earlier in the week, they collected 25 pounds. The lake can seem like a constant dumping ground for the city’s waste.
When it eventually does rain, garbage from the streets and sidewalks will wash down into the lake again, giving the group a fresh chore.
For now, Park’s content again. She’s feeling a sense of purpose as she learns about climate change and how microplastics threaten the environment. Dorsey has a motto that keeps ringing in her head. “Think, plan, fly.”
She’s started saying it, too.