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606 Ambassadors Will Help Make the Bloomingdale Trail Safer and More Fun

Mike Hendricks and Phoenix Forbes talk about the new 606 Ambassadors program
Ambassador Mike Hendricks and Youth Service Project job coordinator Phoenix Forbes help out visitors to The 606.

For two weeks now, 16 young adults have been walking back and forth on the Bloomingdale Trail, talking to trail users about the features of The 606 trail-and-park system, and providing etiquette tips. The new 606 Ambassadors come from neighborhoods near the trail, including West Humboldt Park and Austin.

The trail, built on a former elevated rail line, opened on June 6 and is the centerpiece of The 606, which also includes access parks in Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park, and Bucktown. The Trust for Public Land is managing the development and marketing of The 606. In the spring of 2014, TPL hired youth ambassadors to notifiy residents about traffic and parking impacts before workers transported a railroad bridge from Ashland Avenue to Western Avenue during trail construction.

Now they've contracted the Youth Service Project, a Humboldt Park-based community organization, to enhance visitors' experiences on the path, according to TPL's Caroline O'Boyle. She said TPL wanted to get local youth involved with The 606 "and have an extra set of eyes and ears" on the trail.

606 Ambassador Mike Hendricks, 20, and his boss Phoenix Forbes, the workforce development coordinator at YSP, met with reporters yesterday at the picnic tables on the trail, above Monticello Avenue in Humboldt Park. Hendricks said the ambassadors are there to "keep everybody safe up here" and "let [trail users] know there are some rules to follow."

The ambassadors will act as guides to the path and parks, answering questions such as where various amenities are, and where you can get on and off the trail. They'll also address trail etiquette issues, reminding users to stay to the right right when walking and biking, pass slower users on the left, make their presence known before passing, and keep dogs on leashes.

O'Boyle said that the young people won't be playing the same role as police officers. "They will be logging issues they see, like broken tree limbs, or unauthorized signs," she said. However, the ambassadors will carry two-way radios they can use to call for help in case of emergencies and other trail issues that need immediate attention.

Mike Hendricks and Phoenix Forbes talk about the new 606 Ambassadors program
Hendricks asks Bloomingdale Trail users if they can use any information about the path.

During the ambassadors' training week in early August, they received instruction in how to provide good customer service. They will log concerns they hear when talking with trail users and report these back to TPL so that the organization can gauge users' experiences, according to O'Boyle. The young people also met with police officers from the 14th District to discuss roles and responsibilities.

Hendricks said that during his first week on the job, it seemed like most trail users didn't have any questions. "They had already been up here and knew the ins and outs," he said. He added, before he was issued a t-shirt and cap with The 606 logo, people thought he was "crazy" approaching them and asking how their trail experience was. But one woman told him, "I feel safe with y'all up here."

Two pairs of ambassadors work four-hour shifts twice a day, from 1-9 p.m., and each team walks from one end of the trail to the other, as many times as possible. After Labor Day, the teams will only patrol the path from 5-9 p.m. on weekdays, but they'll continue to work all day on weekends. Hendricks said one of the best things about the work is the interesting things he sees each day as he makes the rounds. "I love this job, [being] outside, and walking...smack dab in the middle of these mansions."

The Trust for Public Land is also partnering with West Town Bikes, a bicycle education center in Humboldt Park, to launch a separate program called the 606 Youth Trail Ambassadors, designed to promote bike use and safety on the path. "We're employing youth cyclists to do educational outreach to trail users and the community at large," said program manager Emily Leidenfrost.

Six teens who have graduated from West Town programs will serve as Youth Trail Ambassadors. They will staff WTB-constructed "fix-it stations" located on and near the trail, teaching cyclists how to use to make minor adjustments and repairs to their bicycles. The group will also develop guides to safe, courteous trail use, which they'll distribute as handouts and via social media.

Updated to add that TPL is partnering with West Town Bikes as well. 

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