Giving thanks for making a difference

As my son and I drove to Cooper Landing to get a little last minute fishing in during the last days of October, I got yet another phone call from a former YRC youth, just to talk and tell me what he was doing and to ask if he could use YRC and me as a reference.

Then the young man began telling me about how college was going and his course of studies. I asked what his major was going to be; he proudly stated, "Geology -- I want to be a soil scientist like Dean." Mr. Dean Davidson was the USFS soil scientist that we worked with for 13 years. Like no other, Dean was a true mentor in every sense of the word. We visited a little longer and like all college students on a weekend, he had another call, and my son and I needed to get back on the road to catch a fish along the Kenai. 

That phone call stayed with me like the many calls we have received over the years from former YRC youth who were asking for a letter of reference or just touching base, letting us know what they are doing in their lives.

Fifteen years ago when we established Youth Restoration Corps to involve local youth in conservation work in Southcentral Alaska, its primary purpose was to promote stewardship and restore fish and wildlife habitat. Little did we know just how much of a positive effect this program would have on youth. Today with over 67,000 on-the-ground-hours invested, youth crews have been restoring fish and wildlife habitat, improving trails, and reducing fuel loads on the forest. YRC youth even built four cabins along the historic Iditarod trail for all to enjoy. In all, 420 local youth have worked in Alaska and over 3,000 youth have been engaged in outreach stewardship activities here and across the nation.

Over the past decade and a half Youth Restoration Corps youth crews have restored over 3 million square feet of habitat and improved over 20 miles of trails, working collectively without injury or incident -- a result our YRC board of directors and its advisors anticipated and expected through their oversight. However, the realization of the mentoring connection these future stewards gained was an outcome which no one ever anticipated. At any given time Vera, Youth Restoration Corps executive director, maintains contact with dozens of these youths and knows how they are getting along in their lives.

A quick breakdown of the demographics YRC program applicants: 25 percent come from a single-parent family home; 1.5 percent were homeless; 6 percent had a deceased parent; and proudly 0 percent have dropped out of school.

In 2010, while YRC was working along the Iditarod Trail in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, Youth Restoration Corps entered a new area of its existence. I was working as YRC's project leader/group leader and I had my first encounter with "high risk." A youth during his satellite phone call home received word a close young family member had taken their own life. An issue that plagues Alaska youth, this dramatic event shook this youth and then me to my core. In the middle of remote Alaska, a young life was gone, and that loss was having a negative effect on yet another youth right before my eyes. 

As I talked and counseled this youth I began to watch him enter a stage of high-risk, asking himself "why?" All I could do was watch. Everything I had been taught and all my experience told me this youth was giving up and was considering taking his life. 

Informing the BLM project leader at the earliest convenience was a standard protocol; this young life was my responsibility and I needed to make our partner in this project aware of what was happening. However, the reaction of BLM defied everything I had ever thought of a federal agency. Within hours of my briefing, this youth in my charge was flying home to be with family, to say good-bye and grieve. With the personal promise given to me that he would be back in a week, one week later he returned with the energy I had come to know and a word of thanks.

Weeks later when this project was over, and we were sitting in the airport waiting to fly home to our respective communities, I learned just how much of a difference that my risk determination and briefing had made, as this youth began telling me how he was struggling with himself on that day, over taking his own life. Confiding in me, he told me his only concern was he didn't want me to be "disappointed" with him. He looked to me for guidance, and I was there. That's when he told me, I was what he wanted to be someday. 

It has been nearly a year and half, and I can barely begin to talk of this event. The young man now is in his home village, he's working as a carpenter -- and the cabins, well, they were used during the Iditarod race in 2011. We installed a single light switch in three of cabins to humor the racers. In the one on the North Fork cabin across from the historic lost Hogan's Road House, you will find the name of a youth who took his life in the summer of 2010 on the switch cover as a memory to him. 

The impact of this event has been huge. The response action by the Bureau of Land Management was even greater. Taking action to save a life of a young Alaskan who was at risk of taking his own life is above and beyond. The mentoring power of the Iditarod project and so many other YRC projects over the past decade and half has positively changed lives.

In 1996 when I began trying to form Youth Restoration Corps, no one ever dreamed possible the mentoring impacts this program would have or the lives which it could reach. At that time we only considered the results of the habitat restoration and stewardship value. In retrospect, it really was a misunderstanding on YRC's part and my mine what the true meaning of  "stewardship" encompassed.

So to all the supporters of Youth Restoration Corps and the hundreds of youth who over the past 15 years have been involved with Youth Restoration Corps, we send a very large "thank you" collectively we can and are making a difference, one teen and one step at a time. 

Give thanks to your mentors.

Kelly Wolf is founder and board chairman of the Youth Restoration Corps, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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