I like to say “You can take the man out of the military but you can’t take the military out of the man.” I invented that saying after working with Gaston Rouse, Director of Volunteer Services for Virginia State Parks.
Gaston found he wasn’t ready to retire for good after he retired from his 30 year Army career. He applied for and was hired as the Visitor Services Specialist for our District III (northern Virginia parks) ten years ago.
In 2000 and 2001 the Joe Elton, State Parks Director, had a plan to revise the Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps. Virginia participated in a Federal program in the 1970s and 80s but when the state support federal money dried up so did our program. Joe tested the water with two youth in 2000 and four in 2001 at Shenandoah River State Park. In the meantime, he asked Gaston to work on designing a program.
Gaston will tell you that he did not design the program from scratch. He researched youth service programs around the country and borrowed heavily from those that were successful. In 2002 we implemented a full trial run with two week overnight programs in five state parks. In 2003 we expanded to three weeks for two sessions and we haven’t looked back. But whatever he tells you, know that there is a lot of Gaston in this program. He embraced military concepts like strict uniform policies, discipline, morning PT. The Supervisors will tell you that Gaston sometimes has sessions with them that remind them of famous movie drill sergeants. Gaston calls them “latrine talks” where he takes the supervisor aside and chews them out. Some of the youth get a taste if Gaston stops by and their “quarters” are at an unacceptable level of cleanliness or there are individual disciplinary problems. Gaston’s standards of excellence are uncompromising and his reputation for expecting nothing less than excellence is a large part of what makes this program successful.
Gaston is passionate about the program. He expects the youth to work hard and he is known to berate park staff if the projects are dragging. He also expects the crews to learn about the environment through park and outside of the park programs and events, trips to museums and other cultural sites, and outdoor fun like canoeing, caving, horseback riding, hiking. But, listen to him describe the program in his own words when pinned down for a few moments at the United We Serve event with Governor Kaine at Pocahontas State Park.
When we finally were allotted a full time volunteer coordinator position in 2005, Gaston was encouraged to apply. Since 2000 Ihad been filling that role along with my other Operations Director responsibilities so I was thrilled when Gaston interviewed for and was hired for the position.
Gaston has accomplished a lot with the overall volunteer program. He has expanded our Youth Conservation Corps. Or, contact us at [email protected] for the YCCprogram, [email protected] for the overall volunteer program and [email protected] for the Camphost program.