Emerson Nuñez grew up on Heath Avenue in Kingsbridge but never set foot in Van Cortlandt Park. He had not been there until one day, as a teenager, he decided to take the No. 1 train to the end of the line and walk around. He entered the park and ended up getting lost on the Putnam Trail.
“There was something peaceful about it,” Mr. Nuñez, now 27, said. “There was something great about getting lost where you kind of learn to navigate through natural areas.”
Mr. Nuñez now knows the Putnam Trail, along with many other areas of the park, as his own backyard. He is also the newly appointed director of the park’s youth and volunteer programs and supervises the Urban Ecology Teen Internship program.
Formerly known as Green Jobs for Youth, the program is a paid internship for underrepresented Bronx teenagers to show them opportunities for working and studying in environmental fields.
Participants learn about forest restoration, mulching, nursery management and trail work and can receive up to four tuition-free college credits through Lehman College’s Science and Technology Entry Program.
Mr. Nuñez said the best part of his job is working with students. “They uplift me in a way. They bring out the best in me. They all have positive energy. When I see that some of them are down, we will talk about the issues that they have.”
And sometimes it is the other way around, and his students are there to support him. Mr. Nuñez recalled taking part in a photo shoot in the park for TD Bank featuring natural spaces in the city, and he was a bit anxious about it. So, instead of taking their lunch break, the interns went to the photo shoot to cheer him on. It “made his day,” Mr. Nuñez said.
Margot Perron, president of the Van Cortlandt Park Conversancy, said Mr. Nuñez is also a role model to the interns, many of whom, like him, are first generation college-bound and college students. Mr. Nuñez has a degree from SUNY Plattsburgh in biology and is currently working on a master’s in plant biology at Lehman College. She said that through Mr. Nuñez and the program, students get comfortable with the idea of going to college.
“It’s wonderful to see what he brings to the kids … It’s seeing him not only as a college graduate but someone who is pursuing a graduate degree at this point and someone who is just in love with plants,” said Ms. Perron.
High school senior Kedwin Lazala, who had never worked at a park until this summer, credited Mr. Nuñez for teaching him about the parks and teamwork. “I learned to be a leader [and learned that] that you can also collaborate with your peers,” Mr. Lazala said.
Although he called himself a reserved person, Mr. Lazala said the supportive environment that his mentor created for him and other students brought him out his shell. Mr. Lazala returned to the park this fall as an intern and said he would like to continue his internship next summer.
Mr. Nuñez said he wanted the interns to take away a respect for the environment and love for nature following their internship. “I think a lot of people get wrapped up, especially in New York City, get wrapped up in their daily lives and the subway and all the noise and all the madness that goes on in New York City. But they can always find a place in nature and in the parks especially, where they can kind of escape and disconnect from their everyday lives,” said Mr. Nuñez.