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Young Puerto Ricans Restore Habitat Damaged by Hurricane While Launching Conservation Careers

April 10, 2024

Thanks to $1.3 million in NOAA funding, BoriCorps members will gain paid work experience and training while restoring ecosystems and supporting local communities.

The 2023-2024 BoriCorps crew funded by NOAA. (Photo: BoriCorps) The 2023-2024 BoriCorps crew funded by NOAA. (Photo: BoriCorps)

Seven years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island’s forests, wetlands, and coral reefs still bear scars from the storm. At Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, dead mangrove trees and the blue tarp still covering the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources’ office testify to the ongoing need for restoration work in Puerto Rico.

“Maria was a wakeup call for a lot of people,” says Nicole Pillot, 23, who grew up near the Reserve. “We realized we’ve got to go out and support our neighbors.” In October 2023, after earning a bachelor’s degree in marine biology, Pillot joined BoriCorps to support community-driven restoration projects in and around the Reserve. 

NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation awarded BoriCorps’ parent organization Franklin’s Promise Coalition $1.3 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act to help expand the program’s reach. 

BoriCorps, a Conservation Corps program for young Puerto Ricans, serves a three-fold purpose. Corps members help restore the island’s environmental and cultural assets and volunteer in hard-hit local communities. They also gain valuable paid work experience and connections to possible future employers, something many young Puerto Ricans struggle to find.

The project will:

  • Fund 36 BoriCorps positions for veterans and young people ages 18–25 over the next 3 years
  • Provide members with a weekly living allowance and an AmeriCorps education award
  • Train BoriCorps and community members in restoration techniques, disaster management, grant writing, and other skills
  • Help local nonprofits and government agencies achieve their restoration and community development goals

“When I got to the BoriCorps interview, I realized this wasn’t just a job,” says Pillot, who had been working as a waitress despite an extensive search to find a paid job in her field. “There would be professional development and the opportunity to support people in the community, which is something I am passionate about. This project also made me realize that I want to work in restoration.”

BoriCorps members prepare to plant mangroves in Jobos Bay. (Photo: BoriCorps)
BoriCorps members prepare to plant mangroves in Jobos Bay. (Photo: BoriCorps)

BoriCorps Blooms from Conservation Corps Success in Florida

Franklin’s Promise Coalition founded BoriCorps in 2021 following their success running Corps programs in North Florida. Conservation Corps offer young people the opportunity to gain work skills through conservation projects that benefit their local community. The Coalition established the Conservation Corps of the Forgotten and Emerald Coast in 2014 and oversees the Florida portion of the GulfCorps. This NOAA-funded program with The Nature Conservancy along the Gulf of Mexico is helping to restore coastal habitats including those damaged from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Franklin’s Promise Coalition Executive Director Joe Taylor was asked to set up a Corps program in Puerto Rico. He had the perfect person in mind for the job: his wife and partner, Jeanette Taylor, a native of Puerto Rico. The Taylors made a 5-year commitment to establish the first Puerto Rico-based Corps program. They named it BoriCorps after the local term “Boricua,” which is derived from the indigenous Taino name for the island.

“I wanted us to create a Corps that will be for Puerto Rico by folks from Puerto Rico,” says Jeanette Taylor, BoriCorps project director. “It’s our legacy, because we've seen how transformative that Corps experience is to young people in Florida.” 

When BoriCorps began recruiting new members, they found many applicants were highly educated but had been unable to secure full-time jobs. “Most entry-level jobs in Puerto Rico are very competitive and require 1 to 2 years of paid field work,” says Taylor. “The experience we’re offering bridges that gap for the young people who want to stay here on the island. We have a serious brain drain here because all of our young educated folks leave for better opportunities on the mainland.” 

“If you value environmental restoration and climate resilience, you have to invest in people to make it sustainable,” says Joe Taylor. “So many of our young people have not been contributing to society because of the barriers they face. But now, not only are they earning sustainable incomes and paying taxes, they’re taking care of the land and communities.”

In October 2023, the first NOAA-funded cohort of 12 BoriCorps members began. Half of the group is restoring mangroves and seagrass in the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Southeast Puerto Rico. The other half is supporting community forestry and agriculture projects near Mayaguez on the western coast.

Restoring Mangrove Forests and Seagrass in Jobos Bay

Nicole Pillot (center) with other BoriCorps members standing in the mangrove forest. (Photo: Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve)
Nicole Pillot (center) with other BoriCorps members standing in the mangrove forest. (Photo: Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve)

Hurricane Maria heavily damaged two critical habitats in Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve—mangrove forests and seagrass beds. Mangroves grow at the water’s edge where their submerged roots provide nursery grounds for fish and crustaceans, and help protect the coastline from flooding by buffering wave energy. The mangroves and surrounding seagrass beds are also home to many other species, including 60 percent of the Caribbean manatee population. 

Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, which manages the Reserve, is partnering with BoriCorps and The Ocean Foundation to restore 695 acres of mangrove forest. NOAA awarded the Foundation $450,000 under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act for this effort and to plan and permit an additional 750-acre project. The project also received an additional $1.2 million in funding from NOAA's Office of Coastal Management via the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Natural Coastal Resilience Fund.

"This mangrove restoration project—the largest of its kind ever attempted in the United States—will contribute to improved fisheries and migratory bird habitat as well as provide hurricane-related wind and flood protection for surrounding communities and critical power-generating facilities,” says Ocean Foundation program officer Ben Scheelk. 

Planting mangroves. (BoriCorps)
Planting mangroves. (Photo: BoriCorps)

““BoriCorps has been the perfect match for us at the perfect time,” says Aitza E. Pabón-Valentín, Director of the Reserve. “They are maintaining the mangrove nursery, planting trees, and assisting all of the volunteers who come here. Driving by the reserve, you'll see a lot of new plants and migratory birds.”

We’ve planted about 4,000 mangroves so far,” says Pillot, who serves as Field and Community Coordinator for BoriCorps South. Her crew also restored water flow to the mangroves and is monitoring mangrove growth and water quality. 

Pillot helps organize outreach activities with local students and scouts. BoriCorps members teach them about mangroves and show them how to maintain the nursery. “We’re planting mangroves for the health and protection of the community, so involving them in the process helps them understand what we are doing and makes them feel like they are part of it,” says Pillot. “Every student who comes here plants a seed in our nursery and keeps that memory in their heart.”

“The Boricorps are wonderful,” says Lead Scientist Manuel Merello of Merello Marine Consulting, who is overseeing the BoriCorps work for the Ocean Foundation. “They are very hardworking and enthusiastic about restoring the coastal marine ecosystem.”

Planting Trees for Wildlife and People

From left to right: Pamela Serrano, Karina Carrasquillo, Jesus Andres, Gabriela Echevarria-Colon, Rocio Del Mar, Sharleen Ortiz, and Maria Benedetti in the Rio Hondo Community Forest (Photo: BoriCorps)
From left to right: Pamela Serrano, Karina Carrasquillo, Jesus Andres, Gabriela Echevarria-Colon, Rocio Del Mar, Sharleen Ortiz, and Maria Benedetti in the Rio Hondo Community Forest (Photo: BoriCorps)

On the other side of the island, BoriCorps members are planting native and fruit bearing trees at the Rio Hondo Community Forest. They’re working under the guidance of local partner Caribbean Regenerative Community Development. The project is the first of its kind in the Caribbean. The  forest protects the land from development while providing community members with a sustainable food source and recreation opportunities. 

“We have planted more than 1,700 trees and opened up 1 mile of trails so far,” says Jesús Colón Moreno, 25, crew leader for BoriCorps West. “We are also doing monitoring work on the Smart Ag project.” The Smart Ag project helps coffee and cacao farmers transition to more sustainable practices in the face of climate change, including planting native shade trees.

Karina Carrasquillo, ready to plant cocoa trees. (Photo: BoriCorps)
Karina Carrasquillo, ready to plant cocoa trees. (Photo: BoriCorps)

“By planting trees within existing working lands, we are providing wildlife corridors and improving the habitat available for native bird species,” says Connor Harron Co-Founder and Associate Director of Caribbean Regenerative Community Development. “This also protects water resources and coral reefs by reducing the amount of sediment that flows into rivers and creeks and ultimately to the Caribbean.”

In response to community interest, they will train both BoriCorps and community members in grant writing. “We love the idea of helping these young people find grants for projects they are passionate about and aligned with their hopes for their community,” says Harron. “We’ll teach them how to write and submit proposals for funding so they can lead their own projects under our umbrella.”

All BoriCorps members also completed the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Emergency Response Team training and took courses in CPR and first aid. Local people were invited to participate as well. These trainings are key to helping local communities respond to future hurricanes.

Keeping the Talent in Puerto Rico

Sara Del Mar Velez (far left) and Jeanette Taylor (upper right) with the first BoriCorps crew in 2021 (Photo: BoriCorps)
Sara Del Mar Velez (far left) and Jeanette Taylor (upper right) with the first BoriCorps crew in 2021 (Photo: BoriCorps)

Towards the end of each cohort’s term, Jeanette Taylor and her staff will assist Corps members with resume writing, interview skills, and job searching. Members of previous cohorts have found jobs with partner organizations and even BoriCorps itself. 

Sara Del Mar Velez is a three-time BoriCorps member who won the 2024 Corpsmember of the Year Award out of all Corpsmembers in the United States. Jeanette Taylor hopes that one day Sara will succeed her as program director. Taylor says that Sara, who currently serves as Senior Crew Leader, stands out for her leadership and logistics skills and role in mentoring less experienced Corpsmembers. 

“After not being able to find work in my field or earn a living wage, I feel like I found my place with BoriCorps,” says Del Mar Velez. “We want to keep all these young people with all their potential in Puerto Rico because they are amazing and have great ideas,” says Jeanette Taylor.

“Working in Puerto Rico has always been my dream,” says Pillot. “We have a lot of natural resources that are beautiful and unique and I want to conserve them. My hope is that one day, my grandkids will see a fully grown mangrove I planted and will know the importance of preserving our environment.” Following her service, Pillot plans to put her education stipend towards a master’s degree so she can become a restoration biologist.

Additional funders include:

  • AmeriCorps
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • Golden Acre Foods
  • Salesforce
  • Commission for Environmental Cooperation
  • 11th Hour Racing
  • Marriott International
  • JetBlue Airways
  • Office of Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón
  • Philadelphia Eagles