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On a recent warm afternoon in the Sonoma Valley, Ava Castro and schoolmates Alex Garber and Lhakpa Sherpa took turns towing barrels of soil and spreading it around the herb spiral they built at Sonoma Garden Park.

The heat failed to slow the girls and three other teens as they tackled tasks at the 6-acre garden. They’re part of EnviroLeaders, a hands-on internship program that teaches 14- to 18-year-olds about environmental restoration and sustainable agriculture.

For nearly a decade, the program has worked with local teens to cultivate environmentally minded youth who can work to preserve the valley’s natural heritage.

“I just like working out here,” Castro, 15, said as she firmly pressed the soil into the herb spiral where cilantro, lavender, oregano, parsley and rosemary will grow. Parts of the harvest are donated to the Lovin’ Oven, another youth program based at Teen Services Sonoma in the Springs.

About six to eight students are hired each semester from local high schools, Hanna Boys Center, Social Advocates for Youth and the Teen Services Sonoma, formerly known as the Valley of the Moon Teen Center. The teens receive a $500 stipend once they complete the three-month internship.

The teens grow organic vegetables and native plants at the garden and take on restoration projects along local creeks. They also help maintain trails at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and take field trips to learn about the watershed, biodiversity and native plants.

They also run a seasonal Saturday market at the garden, located on Seventh Street East just south of East MacArthur Street. The market resumes March 28, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Gardening may be hard. For the teens, though, it beats sitting at home.

“I’m out doing something,” said Castro, a sophomore at Sonoma Valley High School who wants to go into agriculture in the future.

A member of 4-H and FFA, she is a bit of an anomaly for the program, a leading teen employer which has provided internships to 165 kids since its inception in 2006 by the Sonoma Ecology Center. Most of the teens come in with little experience in agriculture and the outdoors, said Tony Passantino, who heads the program.

“They’re less immersed in it in an urban environment,” he said.

While it focuses on environmental stewardship, students also learn necessary job and leadership skills, Passantino said. About a fifth of them pursue environmental careers, he said.

“(We’re) trying to inspire them as they move forward,” he said.

Troy Cameron participated in the internship program when he was a sophomore and senior at Sonoma Valley High.

“My family wasn’t particularly outdoorsy. ... We didn’t have a garden at home,” said Cameron, who went on to study environmental science and geography at Massey University in New Zealand.

Now 22, he’s working as a restoration technician for the ecology center and getting ready to move to Oregon next month for an internship with the Bureau of Land Management. He said EnviroLeaders opened those doors.

“After that experience, I knew I wanted to do something environmental,” he said. “It gave some motivation.”

The leadership and job skills is what attracted Garber to the program. It’s her first job.

She also wanted to learn more about agriculture, Garber, 15, said. She added that she’s already learned a lot about the nutrients and valley’s biodiversity.

“Besides my family ranch, I haven’t really had experience outside of that,” said Garber, a Sonoma Valley High freshman who lives on a ranch near Boyes Hot Springs.

Sherpa, 16, was looking to make friends and practice her English after moving from Nepal a year ago.

“At first I didn’t know how to interact with people. It’s hard making friends,” said Sherpa, who’s returned to the internship after participating in it over the winter.

She also missed the fields. Her parents were farmers back in Nepal, where she helped them grow potatoes and tomatoes.

“Here is different,” she said, turning over the soil in a section of the garden where she planted fava beans last winter.

“We don’t have the farm tools (in Nepal). We had to do it by hand,” she said, adding that she wants a career in agriculture.

“The environment is the biggest issue in the world,” she said. “We need to save the planet.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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