I have been fortunate to meet most of the young men and women who have participated in nine years of our award-winning Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps. Along with Gaston Rouse, Virginia State Park’s Director of Community Engagement and the person responsible for managing the program, I spend six weeks of the summer visiting the crews across the Commonwealth.
I am always at one location each session to meet the youth when their parents drop them off at the park that will be their home for the next three weeks. It’s awkward at first as you might imagine when ten teenagers aged 14 to 17 who have never met get together for the first time. But after the youth change into their uniform shirts and the parents leave, the supervisors who range from college age to older start working on team building activities that form the base of the crew mentality that will serve them well in the next three weeks. Our goal is that none of the youth know each other and they come from different places in the state with different backgrounds. Part of the experience is meeting and working with people that are different, something that many youth do not experience until they enter the workplace as adults.
The crew will work hard. We’re talking manual labor in the heat of the summer. It’s work that makes a big difference to the state park – trail building and maintenance, removal of invasive species, resource management projects. Ideally there will be at least one sustaining project – something that crew members can come back to the park and see. Often these young people have never experienced the pride in working hard to see an end result.
It’s not just the work that makes the Youth ConservationCorps a life-changing experience. The crew works hard but they also play hard. They are exposed to various outdoor recreation experiences like swimming, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, geocaching. They visit local attractions that reflect the history and culture in and surrounding the park. They attend nature programs in the park and sometimes even learn how to put on one of the programs for park guests. The youth will meet and work with park adult volunteers and the experienced staff who run the parks.
Crew members also learn how to take care of themselves in ways that might amaze their parents. They prepare their own meals, do their laundry, keep their gear organized and ready for work. They learn to keep their tools clean and in good working order, proper workplace safety, and how to keep their living quarters clean.
At graduation, a very special event for these young people, Ienjoy seeing the change. Often Iam touched when they talk about their projects and experiences during the three weeks. The youth are happy to be going home but still reluctant to leave their new friends behind. The $500 check they receive is icing on the cake. Iknow the $500 stipend is a big inducement for the kids. They are smart enough NOT to put that on their application though.
Beginning January 1, 2011 we will be accepting applications for the 2011 sessions. The application is only available on line and can be found by visiting the Take Pride America just this past summer. In 2007 it was also selected for the Governor’s Award for best youth volunteer program. While Iam pleased that the program has received these public acknowledgments, what we hear from the parents after the program about the changes in these young people is definitely the most important accolades. A significant number of these young people also apply to come back the next year and some stay with the program as supervisors when they are older.