NewsLocal News


Planting Hope: SD Canyonlands uses wildlife restoration to help environment, change lives

Program lifts people out of homelessness through jobs in nature restoration
Posted at 11:29 AM, Feb 23, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-23 14:29:32-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A new program in San Diego is working to clean up the city's overgrown canyons and trails, and at the same time, they're helping people experiencing trauma or homelessness get back on their feet.

This fall, the SD Canyonlands ECO Initiative hired seven people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and trains them on wildlife restoration and conservation. The group spent four months in training, and working to remove invasive plants and replace them with native plants in the Mission Hills Trail.

ECO stands for Environmental Career Opportunities. An opportunity is what it gave Robert Angel Esperanza.

He had been homeless for several years. It wasn't until he joined the ECO Initiative that he found stability.

"It makes me feel like, you know, I'm part of something," Esperanza told ABC 10News Anchor Jared Aarons.

Over four months, the cohort of workers cleared 7,000 pounds of invasive species, planted more than 400 native plants, and installed more than 2,000 feet of fiber rolls to mitigate erosion and protect against landslides.

In doing so, they turned an overgrown, fire-prone area into a beautiful slice of urban nature.

"When we first came here, you didn't see the trail. You couldn't really see that there's a creek bed," says Cohort Coordinator Jen Ochoa. "I'm certainly proud of my team, because they've learned a lot and I learned alongside."

They're not just learning about wildlife management.

SD Canyonlands Outreach Manager Jillian Quint says the work teaches life skills that can lift people out of poverty, homelessness, trauma, and discrimination.

"That teamwork, being dependable over four month's time, gets you back into that habit. You're breaking the bad habits and gaining new skills," she says.

Of the initial seven members of the ECO Initiative Cohort, three have found full-time jobs in the environmental field.

Esperanza is still looking. But he's already been able to find stable housing.

Now, more than two months after the program ended, Esperanza still comes to Mission Hills to volunteer with SD Canyonlands. He has a sense of pride in the area, knowing he planted the seeds for a better future.

"Don't ever let yourself down and kind of just look forward," he says. "There are a lot of opportunities out there that you can, you know, just grab."

SD Canyonlands plans to begin a new cohort this summer. For more information about it, click here.