Sometimes when you are working for the government people treat you like a bonus-receiving AIG employee. For those in the world that think government is a bad thing (and it can be), I can tell you that sometimes it can be a very good thing. At Virginia State Parks, we earned the Best Managed State Parks system in the nation at a time when we were the worst funded state park system in the nation. This only happens when government is at its finest.
One of our model programs is the Virginia State Parks Youth Corps. If you start with our Virginia State Park mission statement:
To conserve natural, scenic, historic and cultural resources of the commonwealth and to provide recreational and educational opportunities consistent with good stewardship of these lands, water and facilities that leaves them unimpaired for future generations.
We take that conservation mission seriously and believe that the future for natural resources, state parks, national parks, local parks, public lands in general is by fostering a love and appreciation of nature. We strive to offer programming in our parks to plant this seed in the families that visit us. We work with school and the standards of learning to get youth to the park to experience nature. We have embraced the children and nature movement to foster the love for the outdoors in our children.
Public funding being as it is, we rely heavily on a volunteer base of folks who are truly committed to the mission of state parks to work on improving funding, advocating for state parks, and their sweat equity to help us expose more people to state parks. We have always done a good job working with scouts and youth groups. We get wonderful participation from Alternative Spring Break Groups from college age young adults. But we were missing the ‘tweeners, especially high school level. And this is the group that probably also start whining when mom and dad say they are going to spend their vacation at a state park.
Years ago the Federal government started, and still runs themselves, a youth conservation corps. Many of our state parks took advantage of this program. Many of our full time staff today were in those programs as teenagers. But the federal money for state assistance dried up and states couldn’t afford them. But at a time when money was really tight for Virginia State Parks, we resurrected this Youth Conservation Corps concept and made it work. We borrowed from Peter to pay Paul and have run as many as 24 programs (3 weeks long for approximately ten youth each). This year we will be hosting 16 groups.
While we do pay the youth a $500 stipend, this is really a service learning initiative. Many high schools in Virginia require community service for graduation and this program qualifies. The stipend is an incentive to give up the opportunity of making money for the summer.
What do the youth do?They work really hard. Park staff are always amazed at how much work the crews get done. We hire a lot of seasonal staff in that age range and the Youth Corps kids always excel over the regular group. Our Virginia State Parks Volunteer Coordinator, Gaston Rouse, is a retired Army Colonel. Yes, to some the program has a little bit of a militaristic feel: discipline is paramount, each day is started with calisthenics or stretching exercises, uniforms are worn and worn correctly. But the youth really flourish in this environment. In addition to work, the residential program allows the youth to learn to prepare their own meals, get supplies and equipment ready for the day’s work, participate in outdoor adventure and nature programming, and they learn how to work well with a diverse group of other youth. They leave with a sense of accomplishment, a good work ethic, and a love of or at least respect for the value of nature and the outdoors.
What did the state get out of it?In addition to fostering good stewardship and developing character in our precious youth, we also protected bodies of water through erosion projects, expanded outdoor recreation by making new or improving trails. In short, we got a ton of projects done that we would not have been able to do without this program. Talk about the classic win-win!
As one mother said – “I sent you my son and you sent me back a different person. I like the new person better.”
It is not too late to apply for the 2009 Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps. If you know a youth aged 14 to 17 interested in a wonderful summer experience, let him/her know! Youth Corps web page.