Out and About

J oanne Sciulli was a student when she first came to New Haven, but now, 17 years after founding the nonprofit Solar Youth, she’s a teacher, and her classroom is nature. 

When she was studying Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale, Sciulli was interested in “environmental justice issues. How people—based on race and economics—were disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens.” She says that her general interest became more specific as she realized what her three passions were: the environment, cities and kids.

New Haven’s mix of urban and natural spaces, and the young people living in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, inspired her to create Solar Youth, an organization that aims to “empower youth to achieve lifelong success,” she says. “It’s super ambitious, but ultimately we want nothing less for the young people we work with, so that’s what our goal is.”

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By “lifelong success,” she means gaining economic self-sufficiency, community participation, strong relationships and good mental and physical health, among other things. Its programs “teach very specific skills” to those ends. Of particular importance is enabling kids to “self-regulate in stressful situations.” Many “grow up surrounded by tremendous stress and trauma,” Sciulli says, adding that those conditions make it especially important to develop coping skills.

Two Tuesdays ago, Solar Youth’s “stewards”—the program’s term for its young participants—gathered in West Rock Park to hike up to Judges Cave. The leaves were bright and the air was crisp—a classic fall day. In the trailhead parking lot, stewards played games with the older interns and staff members, before lighting out on the trail.

“The number one thing that makes Solar Youth work is who’s doing the work,” Sciulli says. “The program staff is amazing. Nobody goes to school for what Solar Youth does. Nobody comes to us ready to do the work right out of the box. They become super committed to the mission, yes, but mostly to the kids themselves.” Up the trail, the program staff held stewards’ hands, answered questions about moss and gamely kicked up fallen leaves.

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While being out in nature is one of the organization’s cornerstone practices, Sciulli says it’s far from the whole picture. For one thing, Solar Youth’s lessons put an emphasis on understanding the city’s more constructed environments. One lesson that spans most of the year deals with a deceptively simple subject: water. Instead of learning about the water cycle through abstract means like textbooks, the stewards “literally look at how rain falls on our roofs and goes through our drainage system,” Sciulli says, following the water through the city until it can’t be followed—at least on foot. Later in the season, they visit the Long Island Sound to see where their water feeds out into the sea. Lessons like this one are designed to educate stewards in “science and the environment in the context of their lives.”

Right now, Solar Youth is located in three neighborhoods: West Hills, Westville Manor and Newhallville. Sciulli says she knew early on that the organization would have to be “embedded in the neighborhood” in order to make real connections with kids and their parents.

In 2000, Jaleesa Freeman was one of the program’s original stewards. She now works on its development team. “Solar Youth has been a huge part of my life,” she says. “At the time I didn’t know it or even value it, but as I look back, Solar Youth has definitely played a big role in shaping me into the woman that I am today… Seeing my community as more than poorly maintained housing projects, violence and poverty. Seeing that there is a beautiful world in my backyard. Hiking, kayaking, canoeing and rock climbing are all in my backyard waiting for me.”

Solar Youth
53 Wayfarer St, New Haven (map)
(203) 387-4189 | info@solaryouth.org
www.solaryouth.org

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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