The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) is an excellent summer work and learning opportunity for local high school students. Hailing from Kenai, Soldotna, Kasilof, Clam Gulch, and Kenny Lake, this year's YCC enrollees are Lana Chesley, Joanne Glaves, Will Mahan, Jeff McNutt, Abbie Schierholt, Davina Schultz, Cody Whitely, and YCC Youth Leader Dillon Jensen. These tough kids put their feet on the ground to sustain and enhance our resources at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The Refuge's YCC is one of the largest and longest-standing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service YCC programs in the country. Every spring, piles of applications come in from local high school students eager to participate, and eight lucky individuals are pulled from the hat. As Youth Leader Jensen notes, "YCC is a great job for a high school student to have because you get to camp and travel to remote places on the Refuge."
For many this is their first job, for others it is their first experience swinging a tool or camping on the Refuge. For all it is an exciting opportunity to work and learn outdoors with a tightly-knit group of peers.
Through each of the work projects that YCC enrollees complete, they gain a variety of skills and knowledge. When asked what has been positive about her YCC experience so far, Glaves commented, "I love the projects because it's all problem solving."
This season's projects have introduced them to cabin restoration and the history of European settlement on the Kenai Peninsula; riparian habitat protection and fence installation at the Russian River Ferry; portage trail maintenance and paddling in the Swan Lake Canoe System; trail construction and maintenance, preventing erosion and minimizing human impacts; Leave No Trace ethics; wildfire ecology and management; and bear awareness.
Projects also provide our YCC crew a chance to interact with Fish and Wildlife Service professionals in a number of fields. Our YCCers this year have worked closely with Ecologist Dr. Libby Bella, Cabin Historian Gary Titus, Forest Service Interagency Coordinator Bobbie Jo Skibo, Wildland Fire Technicians Karen McGahan and Brian Nichols, and the Refuge Trail Crew.
Recently, the Trail Crew partnered up with the YCC crew to provide support as they learned how to build sustainable hiking trails. 'Learn it, do it, teach it,' is how the saying goes. Within two days of their introduction to trail building concepts, our YCCers had turned from apprentice to master, taking on the role of teacher themselves with visiting YCC enrollees from Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge based in Homer. They jumped at the chance to partner up with their fellow students. This not only engaged extra hands for a big project, but created an opportunity for Homer's crew to work alongside peers from another community.
Though this year's YCC has only been working together for five weeks, enrollee Lana Chesley describes how much more than a job it has been.
"Throughout the weeks we have become such a close family," Chesley said. "We learn how to work together well and communicate with one another. It's a great experience for teenagers, something every growing person needs is to have a family and build confidence -- to do such good and feel wanted."
I and my fellow YCC Leader Christa Kennedy, Program coordinator Scott Slavik, and other Refuge staff are delighted to hear this. We work to provide the highest quality experience for enrollees, not only for the equally high quality work that YCC invests in the Refuge during their eight-week season, but for that confidence, knowledge and skill set that these young leaders will take with them. We connect YCC enrollees to the relevance their project has in the greater context and the purpose of the Refuge. With this increased understanding of natural and human processes taking place on the Refuge, and the philosophy and policy that guides its management, we hope they feel empowered to join the dialogue on public resource management.
I am privileged to work with the young women and men in the YCC program. They have surpassed all of our expectations. They learn quicker, work harder, and produce higher quality results then most would assume them capable of and they do it with energy, laughter and heart. I hope they will carry with them their experience on the Refuge.
What do the YCC participants see as the impact of their work? Enrollee Jeff McNutt told me, "I think it's cool to do something to better the area around us, and one day we get to come back with our kids and show them what we did."
Many like Jeff will be back, not only to show their own children the work they have done and that it still stands, but to speak to others of their experience and how invaluable the YCC program has been and will continue to be for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and our community.
Ciara Johnson is one of two YCC Leaders at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.