It might not be common for folks to want to go into the forest for 8 weeks with a couple of teenagers, but after the summer I spent with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, I would jump at the chance to do it all over again. I’m excited to tell you a little bit about my “YCC’ers”, and what they did this summer, but first let’s talk about what YCC is and what the program does.
According to the Forest Service website, the Youth Conservation Corps program was established in 1974 to help young people ages 15 to 18 gain an understanding of and an appreciation for the nation’s environment and heritage, and thereby further the development and maintenance of the natural resources by America’s youth. YCC provides teenagers gainful employment, while they learn land management and work ethic skills.
According to me, YCC members have a ton of fun while also learning to work through heat, bugs, tough elevation changes, and new circumstances that can be daunting for some people, especially if this is your first job. They get paid minimum wage, and they gain a whole lot more work experience than they would taking orders at a pizza shop or selling clothes at the mall. If you know a teenager that will be looking for a job next summer, I highly encourage them to apply for a position with a YCC crew. There are YCC crews at National Parks and on the state level as well. It’s not a program unique to the Forest Service. One of my favorite components of the YCC program is that it must be at least 50/50 male and female.
Throughout the 8 weeks that they worked for the Forest Service, Corrine and Kenny did a ton of trail work and recreation projects. We researched how to design handicapped parking spaces, came up with a plan to put them in, found the supplies (some of which had to be borrowed from a local public works department) and came up with a strategy to make sure they looked nice and professional. I thought this was really good experience for them and showed them that if you’re asked to do something at work that you don’t know how to do, there are lots of resources out there to help you figure it out and make sure you get it done in a timely fashion.
I tried to draw a lot on my experience at boot camp to try to make sure they got the most out of the experience. Going into boot camp, I didn’t have that much confidence in myself and my ability to do things. I didn’t have a lot of ambition or sense of purpose, simply because I hadn’t had to. So, I didn’t put them in push up position or anything like that, but I did try to instill in them confidence and ambition especially when presented with a new or difficult task.
One day, Corrine was tending an American Chestnut seedling in a stand of hybrids meant to give us some insight on saving the species from blight, and she got stung by several bees. One bee got her in the face. I expected her to possibly cry and not want to come back to work any more that day, but after a short break in the truck she did come back and without a single tear, at that. I was super proud of her that day!
Kenny knows every creature in the forest and in the water. He can identify every type of snake and responds with enthusiasm every time we see any wildlife, even to our daily deer sightings. Kenny loves this job. I was excited to get to work with him specifically because he has autism. I knew this would be a great job for him and also that it would be very challenging. We had several meetings with Kenny’s job coach, his mother, and his grandmother before we decided that he should apply. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I would be a good leader to him because I didn’t know very much about autism or how to set him up for success. After meeting Kenny, though, I was so on board that I crossed my fingers that he would be selected for the program. Seeing how excited he was at the possibility, it was impossible for anyone to not be on board.
There was a particular instance where I thought Kenny would have a hard time. We needed to ride on a boat to the end of the trail we would be clearing, because that was the only way that we would definitely get the whole trail cleared before the July 4th deadline. Kenny said he had never been on a boat, and I wasn’t sure how he was going to react to this new and unknown situation. But of course, these hesitations came from me and not from Kenny, who told everyone after that the boat ride had been his favorite part of the job so far.
Another component of the YCC program is that the crew members are to have 2 hours every week of environmental education. Because of this, we got to learn all about bears, salamanders, bees, fish printing, and vernal pools. We took advantage of the free interpretive programing at Douthat State Park and did one trip to Natural Bridge, which was another highlight of the summer.
As a special superhero duty, we rescued 7 turtles from the roadways on our adventures. So many that we began calling ourselves the Turtle Rescue Squad
Even though I was pretty nervous about leading the YCC this summer, it turned out to be a super rewarding experience. I think the kids learned a lot, and I know I did. If you end up leading a YCC crew at some point, my biggest piece of advice is not to listen to folks that might tell you how difficult it will be or that you will get a bunch of kids who are just there because their parents made them get a job this summer. Like most things in life, you get back what you put in and that includes believing in your crew and watching them make you proud.