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STEP-UP teens camp with Rybak to cap summer of internships

MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Wilderness Inquiry trail guide Eli Grobel, right, assists Amira Hussein in unhooking her fish.

The fish that finally bit on Amira Hussein’s hook Monday afternoon was about as perfect a 5-inch specimen as a novice angler could ask for. It was green and yellow and as Hussein reached tentatively to unhook and release it, it snapped its tail directly at her.

Hussein quite literally jumped out of her black dress flats, hijab flying, her left shoe temporarily abandoned on a fishing pier on Picnic Island at Ft. Snelling State Park. At her side, Wilderness Inquiry trail guide Eli Grobel kept a firm grip on Hussein’s rod and reel while she recovered.

Hussein was one of 20 teens celebrating the end of a summer of successful STEP-UP Achieve internships with Twin Cities employers. They went on an overnight camping expedition with Mayor R.T. Rybak and his wife, Megan O’Hara.

Little outdoor experience

Few of the teens had much outdoor experience. Hussein, about to start her senior year at Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins, had none at all. Her family fled Somalia when she was 4 because their village was destroyed.

Until she got her line in the water, the purpose of the combination of hook, bobber and sinker was mystifyingly abstract. The fishing vest she was handed? Hussein gleefully stuffed her cell phone, tethered to an ear-bud secured under her head scarf, into a net pocket.

“Can we catch those giant mosquitos, too?” she asked, waving her pole at some dragonflies buzzing a flotilla of lily pads.

Why cap a summer of career-readiness programming with a camping trip? One in 20 U.S. jobs today is outdoors, but how often do you see a fishery at a career fair or hear that a career as a naturalist is a viable one?

About as often as four people who are perfectly positioned to step into that void decide to take a stroll together in a wilderness that can be reached by a short ride on light rail. Two months ago Rybak and O’Hara were taking a walk on Picnic Island with Pam Costain, who is president and CEO of AchieveMpls, and Wilderness Inquiry co-founder Greg Lais.

How it came together

Rybak’s and Costain’s offices share responsibility for STEP UP, a 10-year-old, nationally recognized effort to prepare disadvantaged Twin Cities high-school students for jobs and help place them with local employers. The goal being to make the rewards waiting on the other side of college more tangible.

O’Hara had just gone to work for the outdoor adventure organization as its youth outdoor employment director. Lais had looked at STEP-UP’s roster of more than 150 participating businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. Impressive though it was, he noted, there were no outdoor job providers.

After 30 years in the sector, Lais had relationships with people in the national and state parks systems, the state Department of Natural Resources and REI and other outfitters.

What better way to find out which STEP-UP students would gravitate toward outdoors jobs than to take them out into the great outdoors? Through Wilderness Inquiry’s Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures, O’Hara had been getting city kids out on local waterways for four years and watching the magic.

‘They hit the trail together, they paddle together’

“They come speaking every language under the sun,” she said. “They come together, they put up a tent together, they hit the trail together, they paddle together.”

And on Monday, after a pep talk from the only mayor in America who packs all-natural bug spray just in case, they camped together. “In 10 years we’ve put 18,000 of you through STEP-UP,” he told the group. “Think of the Target Center. After this year we’d no longer fit in there. That’s why we need the Vikings stadium.”

Minneapolis’ employers, he reminded them, are in desperate need of their unique mix of skills. “I’m so excited to watch you go out and take over the city,” he said. “I’m handing the city over to you.”

As if on cue, a deer stepped into a stand of trees behind him, nearly touching off a stampede of incredulous students. “It’s just chillin’,” said one, pointing. “It’s, like, right there.” 

After a short orientation, one group headed off on a nature and history hike. Another, including the O’Hara-Rybak contingent, went pontooning with a ranger from the National Park Service. Hussein and half a dozen others got a crash course in fishing from an intern in the Department of Natural Resources’ MinnAqua program.

Readying for fisheries career

Actually, calling Kristine Markham an intern is a bit of an undersell. She’s more like a walking example of the case for outdoor jobs. She began fishing at pro bass tournaments when she was 10, and has a career in fisheries management with the DNR sketched out.

To that end, Markham is enrolled at Bemidji State University’s aquatic biology program. She spends her summers teaching kids — usually little ones — to fish and to care about water quality in lakes and rivers.

“In 10 years we’ve put 18,000 of you through STEP-UP,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told the students.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins“In 10 years we’ve put 18,000 of you through STEP-UP,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told the students. 

Raoul Molina is a senior at Edison High School and one of the more experienced fishermen in the group. His job this past summer was with the West Broadway Coalition, a nonprofit working to bring farmers markets to Minneapolis’ north side. He liked it, but he’s going into the Marines after graduation next spring.

Molina gets the soda-can caster Markham teaches the group to make baited with a kernel of corn and casting remarkably well in a flash. At first he has as little luck as anyone. “Aww, this is cheap corn,” he complained.

‘They’re little tricksters’

Actually, it was just big corn — too big for the mouths of the tiny fish surrounding the pier. And so for the better part of an hour the anglers learned to cast, only to watch as entire schools nibbled away.

“They’re little tricksters,” Hussein said, threading the umpteenth kernel onto her hook. “I hope this one isn’t as smart as the others.”

And then suddenly one bit. “Finally,” Hussein said, catch landed and reveling in having the upper hand at last. “They have been scamming so much corn.” 

She caught another before the afternoon was out, causing Grobel to announce, “She’s kind of a big deal in the fishing community.”

Also landed and released: A pan-fry-sized yellow perch and a yellow bullhead that clamped a remarkably strong jaw around Grobel’s fingers and had to gulp its way through an impromptu anatomy lesson as penance.

Horizons broadened

So did the experience make Hussein consider an outdoors career? No. She had a terrific summer maintaining the Children’s Hospital website and has been asked back for another year.

Hussein’s horizons had been broadened, though. As Rybak, who had a morning flight, and some of the other less-tent-loving adults prepared to leave the teens to a cookout and bonfire, she was cheerfully getting a lesson in how to wash the fish scent from her hands in a jury-rigged sink. After they were clean, she offered to the other campers, she’d show them some video from her phone.

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