On a hot July afternoon, three Brookline High School teenagers, undeterred by the blazing sun, went straight to work picking up leaves and branches and pulling weeds at a Brookline Hills home. They are just a few of the 25 high school-aged students employed by Youthscapers, a non-profit organization based out of the Brookline Teen Center. The organization hires teenagers with little to no job experience to work yard-work shifts from June to August, with a smaller number working throughout the fall. Brookline residents can hire Youthscapers for jobs like weeding, yard clean up, raking, leaf and bush removal, branch clean up, planting and lawn mowing as well as miscellaneous tasks like moving heavy furniture, painting, basement, and garage clean up and deck staining.

The original concept of Youthscapers came from BHS social worker Paul Epstein. He began taking high school kids to perform paid odd jobs around town but was covering the costs himself. The Brookline Teen Center took Epstein’s idea and developed it into an official program. Interested high school students would apply and then go through a formal interview, orientation, and training process. “For most of our workers, it’s their first real job, their first real paycheck, and their first time filling out paperwork like applications and tax forms,” says Youthscapers co-director Matt Baker. The Youthscapers supervisors, all teachers, and BTC employees acknowledge that a first job is a big step in the transition from childhood to adulthood regardless of the type of job.

“Teens want to learn how to become independent,” says BTC executive director Matt Cooney. “Part of their development pathway is to learn job skills, which include soft skills like showing up on time, reading email, communicating a change in plans, following directions, dealing with customers, learning to work efficiently. We see a huge gain in the kids’ ability from the start of the season to the end. Often times, this translates into a real job for them at places like Trader Joe’s and Stop N’ Shop.”

Relaxing with cold lemonade that the homeowner had provided them after completing their shift, the three teens reflect on what they have gained from working for Youthscapers. “I get super nervous about being on time,” says Eduardo Gullon, a sophomore at BHS. “It’s not like at school where all you get is detention. When you’re late, there are real consequences. If you don’t get there on time, you don’t get paid!” Waleska Avalo, a BHS junior recalls another important soft skill — customer service. “Sometimes the homeowners initiate conversation while you’re working and you have to be respectful and engage them even when you’re busy,” she says.

Adner Martinez, a senior at BHS, says that one of the most challenging parts of working for Youthscapers is the yard work itself. “It’s challenging to know to pull the right plants, like pulling out weeds instead of someone’s vegetables; knowing how to use the right tools. You can only learn these things by doing,” he says. Martinez fondly recalls one shift where the homeowner gave him mint leaves from her garden as a token of appreciation. “My mother loves mint, so I gave them to her,” he continued. “That made me really happy.”

The program is aiming to expand while going on its fifth year. Youthscapers are currently raising money to purchase a pick-up truck, in addition to the official van the company currently utilizes. “We’ve added a social media and data management coordinator,” Baker said. “This year, we’ve grown from three supervisors to six supervisors.” Youthscapers also aims to clear a path in a world where helicopter parenting and micromanaging can easily interfere with teens’ transition into adulthood. “I think there is a tendency in our culture to hold students’ hands a little too much. This is a chance for them to step out on their own and develop independence.” Many lessons can be used later in life. “When I have a house one day, I’ll know how to take care of it!” adds Martinez. “Maybe one day, you’ll have Youthscapers helping you take care of that house,” Baker said.

By Alicia Landsberg