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Youth Corps Holds a Key to Trails

Trails Work Builds Skills, Pride in Work, and Character Development

By Phil Helfrich, Uncompahgre Riverway, Inc. Montrose Youth Conservation Corps

The idea of recruiting youth for crews to work on community projects is nothing new. It originated in the 1930's under the Roosevelt administration as an answer to the Depression. Colorado had its share of Youth Conservation Corps (YCCs) working on backcountry projects throughout the west. Crews built trails and parks, shored up eroding lakes and streams, and completed projects on public lands. They even had their own specially-designed train.

Recently a movement has been sweeping the country to bring back the youth corps concept. Today's corps are much more encompassing than their earlier counterparts. They feature meaningful community projects-- from Head Start playground construction to affordable housing rehab (known as YouthBuild) to intergenerational contact programs to residential trail building-- in a milieu of personal, career and leadership development activities.

Young people learn how to work together in a corps. A wonderfully weird thing happens when a group of 6-8 guys (16-21 yrs.) are task oriented under the direction of a responsible adult. I have noticed that group dynamics rears its peer-pressure head, and almost without exception, a work ethic forms within 2-3 months. Working and being productive becomes the norm; it's what these kids do when they're together.

The educational and person-molding opportunities are everywhere. Kids can learn assertiveness and communication theory as a means to resolve their differences both on and off the job. Work maturity skills, as they're known in the trade, (showing up on time, taking direction, getting along with others, etc.) can be taught in conjunction with specific work skills, such as tool use, carpentry, plumbing, concrete work, etc.

As another benefit to each youth, we require every worker to also be a student of something. Whether it's evening classes, correspondence school, GED prep, or vocational training, every program participant must partake of some education. In a broader scale, this extrapolates into learning about nutrition, physical education, sex ed and occasional road trip seminars. Many studies have shown that the most important influence on teens is their peers.

Under adult guidance, the dominant youth corps culture becomes work, education, and personal improvement.

The National Community and Service Act was passed last year authorizing the federal funding of state and local youth corps. State and local corps such as the East Bay Conservation Corp in Oakland, CA, and the New York City YouthBuild Coalition, have been successfully operating for years. Starting as either local government initiatives or non-profits, these corps usually start as grant and foundation projects with some help from the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) or Community Service Block Grants (CDBG), and switch funding to fee-for-service or state supported. A national network exists to share ideas.

In Colorado, there is really no state conservation corps, although Jefferson County has a residential program which is titled Colorado Youth Corps. Denver also has a youth corps of sorts run by the Mayor's office of employment and training. California funds millions of state dollars into the concept as do Michigan, Florida, New York, Vermont, and some others. The State of Colorado as yet does NOT fund youth corps although some National Community and Service Act funds are administered by local JTPAs.

I've managed to put together funding through JTPA and leveraged CDBG funds. I've submitted a proposal to create a year-round youth corps with help from youth-serving agency reps. Additional funding could be passed to us through the current state corps/JTPA process. Recently we were awarded an $80,000 Transportation Enhancement grant toward building a 30-mile trail between Montrose and Ouray.

I can share background information, funding material, and detailed descriptions of day-to-day program operations with anyone who's interested. Almost any community can plan a youth corps specific to its needs, and find funding for community projects. I've seen teenagers turn their lives around and become responsible young adults. I've also seen playgrounds constructed, affordable housing created, and trails built that wouldn't exist otherwise.

Phil Helfrich also notes that success depends on both a solid, hard-working crew leader who likes kids, and access to a late '50s Chrysler two-door hardtop with fins.

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