Making a Difference

With tea partiers running around the country talking about the evils of government, I love to point out when government does really great things. In it’s ninth year, our Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps is a very good thing. Here is a post I wrote for our blog.

It probably doesn’t make sense to start the beginning of a series of articles on our Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps at the end of the program, but since it was the graduation I attended Saturday that gave me the idea for the series, I want to start there.

What the YCC is: The Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps is a three week program for youth age 14 to 17. The youth live and work in one of our state parks under the direct supervision of three college age or older supervisors and the watchful eye of our park staff and the two program coordinators (I happen to be one of those two). We run two sessions in the summer at our parks across the state. The youth, called crew members, work very hard for three weeks but they also have fun. Their reward is a $500 stipend. While I am not naive enough to think the stipend does not influence participation in the program, I’d venture to guess that most youth realize after day 3 that the $500 may be on the low side compared to how hard they are working but there are other rewards greater than money.

The Natural Tunnel Crew work on an accessible walkway from the lodge to a picnic pad
The Natural Tunnel YCC crew work on an accessible walkway from the lodge to a picnic pad. This was one of two challenging projects these young men completed.

What the YCC is NOT: Summer Camp. Crew members have fun including visiting historic sites and museums and participating in outdoor recreation activities, but they work very hard for close to forty hours each of the three weeks.

The First Landing Crew try their hand at geocaching
The First Landing Crew goes Geocaching

We started in 2002 in six parks with a two week test program and started the program we know today in 2003. Gaston Rouse, our Director of Community Engagement and Volunteerism, developed the program after researching similar programs across the country but he has made the VSPYCC a unique and amazing opportunity for young people.

Kiptopeke crew becomes expert at replacing boards on a boardwalk
Kiptopeke crew becomes expert at replacing boards on a boardwalk

On the drive back from Mason Neck State Park on Saturday (the two and a half hour drive took me five and a half hours) I had lots of time to think. I calculated that I had attended eighteen graduations for the program. I don’t think we realized when we started the YCC how moving the graduations would be.

Given the complications of getting paychecks in state government, a lot of people work really hard to get the stipend checks to the crew members on graduation day. We actually hire the youth officially so they will be protected by worker’s comp and unless you work for government it might be hard to imagine the stack of paperwork that needs to be completed. This year Virginia adopted the e-verify process which requires documentation that is stricter than the normal I-9 (Homeland Security form to verify employees are legally eligible to work in the United States) which is enough of a nightmare. Take my word for it, the process is grueling. So after the parents complete hiring paperwork, Gaston and my staff process the paperwork, send to Human Resources, they send to payroll and we manage to get the checks to the parks in time.

The Twin Lakes YCC crew show off their finished project - a retaining wall in the cabin area
The Twin Lakes YCC crew show off their finished project – a retaining wall in the cabin area

So the graduation started as an opportunity to present the youth with their check, a certificate and a medal in front of their parents. What it has grown into is an amazing ceremony that celebrates what these young people accomplish in three weeks and how the program changes them and the park in that short time. I can’t remember a graduation that I didn’t tear up.

The graduation Saturday was one of the best ever. While it was held at Mason Neck State Park, the crew actually worked at Leesylvania State Park. We have no volunteer housing at Leesylvania so the girls live at the Jammes House at Mason Neck and commute. While waiting for the graduation to begin, I talked to the grandfather of one of the crew members. He asked me if the program was modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which it is. He then shared that his father was in the CCC. So now I already know that this is special as we have the great granddaughter of a CCC member in the program. The CCC built our original six parks as well as some of our others, and with this our 75th anniversary, this was like coming full circle.

Park Manager Tony Widmer (orange shirt) poses with the Shenandoah River State Park YCC crew in the obligatory "crew stands on rocks" picture for programs in the mountain parks.
Park Manager Tony Widmer (orange shirt) poses with the Shenandoah River State Park YCC crew in the obligatory “crew stands on rocks” picture for programs in the mountain parks. This was the one crew I did not get to meet. Our housing only allows a small program of seven youth and two supervisors. This program was unique in that all of the crew members had been in the program before.

The three supervisors for this program were also special. They had all been in the program as crew members and for multiple years. The lead supervisor, Nina, was a crew member from one of those six test parks back in 2002. Christina and Hannah were both Emmitt Award winners (I will talk about that award in a later post) which we started in 2004.

The best part of the graduation was that the supervisors did an amazing job emphasizing what the YCC is all about. Starting with a short video clip from the first day of the program where the girls were awkward with each other and didn’t even know everyone’s names, through pictures and video clips, the three weeks were chronicled. You could see these girls who had never done heavy labor get stronger as they also became a cohesive team. As a team they completed two sets of stairs on trails from clearing the hillsides to making the stair frames to pounding rebar into the ground and finally filling the stair frames with gravel. The park staff did not think they would be able to finish. They finished. And those girls were so proud of what they accomplished.

Leesylvania YCC Crew - Stairs set one - before picture
A “before” view of the trail the Leesylvania crew worked on

The "after" picture YCC Leesylvania crew
My Blackberry Camera fails to capture the detail of the stairs (one set of two) the girls built and installed. They curve around the top of the hill.

One other graduation tradition that has developed is that each crew member is given a superlative. Some are serious and some are funny, but they celebrate the unique personalities each crew member brings to the team.

Me with the York River YCC crew at Peking in Williamsburg
Me with the York River Crew at Peking Restaurant in Williamsburg

Gaston and I try to visit as many of the programs as possible during each session. I missed one this year but Gaston met all of the young people. Those meetings and the graduation are our favorite part of the program. Meeting those young people who give up some of their summer to work very hard making a difference in our parks gives me hope for the future. They make a difference in our parks doing projects that we would usually not be able to get done and along the way the program makes a difference TO them. I believe every last one of the crew members are changed by the experience, some a little, more of them by a lot. Since we have crew members return for multiple years and become interns and supervisors, it is a great privilege to watch these young people grow to adulthood.

Here is a slideshow of the pictures from the Leesylvania Crew.

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Check out all of the Youth Conservation Corps pictures by clicking here.

“Like” the special Youth Conservation Corps Facebook Page by clicking here.

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