Virginia State Parks participated in the Federal Youth Conservation Corps in the 1970s and 80s. This program was financed by the Federal government and lasted most of the summer. Unfortunately the money for the state program dried up and we had to shelve the program (the Federal government still operates the program at national sites).
In 2000, State Parks Director Joe Elton decided we needed to revive the program and tasked Gaston Rouse, retired Army Colonel and one of our Visitor Services Specialists, with developing a program. In 2002 Gaston and I introduced the new Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps. Gaston later became and now serves as our Director of Volunteer Services.
In the eight years from 2002, 1,350 youths and 261 Crew Supervisors have participated in the program. This equates to 289,527 volunteer hours over that period. Using the 2008 Virginia Average Hourly Value of Volunteer Time this translates to $5.7 million worth of salary savings.
The truth is much of what the crews accomplish is work that just would not get done due to every day demands on dedicated but overworked staff. Much of the work has involved trail projects. Customer service surveys indicate that one of the major reasons visitors come to Virginia State Parks is to take advantage of our trails. Trails are labor intensive since nature likes to reclaim them so it is a constant struggle to keep the trail system cleared and draining properly.
It’s also not all hard work. We treat the youth to our park programs on the natural world and the history and culture of the local area. We also get them involved in many fun outdoor activities like canoeing and kayaking, horseback riding, and swimming. They will visit local historical attractions and museums.
The youth participants come from across the state and even out of state and represent young people from different cultures, races and backgrounds. The group learns what it is like to work as a team with other young people that may not be like them.
Finally, they learn to take care of themselves. Youth have to do their own laundry, cook their own meals, perform chores in their living quarters and the job sites. Some of the kids have never been away from home before.
Gaston and I try to visit all of the programs each summer. We don’t always make them all but the visits are always memorable. One of our Visitor Services Specialists from southwest Virginia, Amy Atwood, helps us with some of the programs out in the western part of the state to minimize driving. The program is a lot of work to manage. Gaston shoulders most of that. He and I together select the youth. That can be a challenge. This year we had over 700 applications to read and could only select about 132 participants. Not an easy task. During the two three week sessions, Gaston talks to or gets a message from each lead supervisor.
Naturally there are issues to solve – everything from disciplinary actions to just getting all of the paperwork necessary to pay the youth their stipends. It is an overwhelming feeling to have the responsibility of someone else’s children for three weeks solid. But we meet these young people and all the work is worth it. They are the future for this country and we come away thinking everything will be all right.
For more information on this program, please see our website. Applications and information for the 2010 sessions will be posted by January 1.