In Portland, It’s OK to GRUNT

November 1, 2013, Feature, by Peter Magnuson

Conservation lessons are best learned in the field, and the GRUNT program includes training in a wide range of natural environments. Photo: Portland Parks and Recreation.Are you looking for ways to teach students about park and recreation careers? Are you searching for an effective employment pipeline? Do you want to teach students important job skills? If you knew a program that does this and more already exists, would you want to learn more?

If so, then look no further than Portland, Oregon, where the Greenspaces Restoration and Urban Naturalist Team (GRUNT) program has been “getting students interested in nature, teaching them about the variety of careers available, and providing the job skills and opportunities students need to be successful” since 2008.

According to Mike Abbaté, director of Portland Parks and Recreation (PP&R), the GRUNT program was started because the agency “had been looking for ways to connect urban youth to the natural world and provide job skills while also creating a pipeline for new employees.”

The Model

The GRUNT program is a 65-hour volunteer program for 10th-grade students. Interested students must first complete an application that includes a letter of recommendation. “We are looking for kids who might be at risk but have an interest in volunteering,” Abbaté says. To target these students, PP&R works closely with the school system, the Office of Youth Violence Prevention and other community organizations.

Students who complete the application must then go through an interview process. “Since we are teaching job and life skills, we wanted to make the program as real as possible,” Abbaté says. Following this, PP&R selects approximately 18 students a year to participate in the GRUNT program.

Those students spend at least eight Saturdays visiting numerous PP&R parks and learning about nature and leadership. In the parks, they learn about invasive plants, trail building, nature awareness and water quality. At the same time, they learn about effective listening, public speaking, conflict resolution and perseverance. 

Although the GRUNT program is only for high school sophomores, graduates of the program are uniquely positioned to take advantage of PP&R’s paid programs, including summer jobs, internships and even a college scholarship.

“We think of the GRUNT program as the introduction,” Abbaté says. “We really want these kids to get involved in the paid side because then they are really doing something for the community. This is where you see the kids feeling like they have made a contribution — leading preschool programs, building a trail or pulling ivy,” he adds.

Despite the success of the GRUNT program, PP&R felt that something was missing. “We discovered that the 10th grade was not quite early enough,” Abbaté notes. “We wanted to get kids young enough in their high school careers before they have made their decisions on what to study.” The result was the creation of the Jr. GRUNT program.

This program, for 8th- and 9th-grade students, is set up much the same as the GRUNT program. Students must complete an application and go through an interview. The program, however, has three separate opportunities for participants: a Saturday program during the fall, a spring break program and a weeklong summer program. Only students who complete the 8th-grade component, however, are eligible for the 9th-grade program.

Abbaté emphasizes the important role each of these programs plays in meeting PP&R’s goals. “If we only had one of these programs, I think we’d miss the opportunity to make a significant impact on kids’ lives.”

The Results 

PP&R started the GRUNT and Jr. GRUNT programs with the goal of connecting at-risk youth to nature and teaching them about careers in parks and recreation. What it found, however, was that the benefits far exceeded the expectations. 

PP&R has done a good job of attracting at-risk youth. Of the nearly 200 students who have participated in the programs, 69 percent are people of color, 56 percent speak English as a second language, and 82 percent participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program at their school.

In addition, the agency has succeeded in teaching these students about park and recreation careers and creating an employment pipeline. More than half of the participants in the 8th-grade program went on to do the 9th-grade component. In addition, 41 graduates of the GRUNT or Jr. GRUNT program are currently employed in paid natural resources jobs with PP&R.

These programs, however, are not just helping PP&R. The students are also benefiting. PP&R tested the Jr. GRUNTs on a number of science standards before and after their participation in the program. What it found was an increase in every science standard category that it tested. 

While these are all amazing results, for Abbaté, the greatest benefit lies elsewhere. “One of the coolest things is that these kids go in with no personal knowledge of the environment. When they go through the program, they bond with each other and they absolutely get enthused about the natural world. Once they get engaged, they come back.”

The Partners

Abbaté acknowledges that the GRUNT programs would not be a success without the community partnerships that make them happen. In addition to the schools and community organizations that help get the word out, PP&R staff and key funders are vitally important.

According to Abbaté, although the programs are free for the students, it costs about $100,000 a year to support them. Those costs include staff time, transportation, equipment and materials. For now, these programs are funded through grants, the largest of which comes from the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District.

The Future

Currently, the GRUNT programs in Portland reach about 40 students a year. But Abbaté sees this as just the beginning. “I think we should be able to double or triple the programs,” he says. “They are super, super effective in getting kids captivated and motivated. Plus, they are vital in helping us find the next generation of park and recreation professionals.”


Peter Magnuson is NRPA’s Director of Marketing.