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Posted August 7, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Paying it forward: Youth program teaches respect for land, helps state parks

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

DELAPLANE -- This summer at a 3-square mile state park along Va. 17 in Fauquier County, teens and young adults from around Virginia have spent their summer vacation doing what few others can claim to have done.

They will live among nature for three weeks, meet new and impressive people, help the environment, earn experience for college and tour the nation's capital, twice. As if that has not been reward enough, they will even get paid for their time.

For some, it's their first job, for others, it's a chance to test out a future career, but for all it's an experience they will remember forever.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation states in its publication materials for the program that the Youth Conservation Corps provides more than just a camping experience. That would be an understatement.

"I think that the program really helps you appreciate your environment," said supervisor Katie Shrader, 22, of Lancaster. "One of the goals is to help people get out to different areas."

"My environmental science teacher told me about it, and I thought why not?" said Chantee Tyler, 17, of Dale City. She enjoys the outdoors, "not as a career, but I'm interested in it," she said.

Improving the parks was a draw for her.

YCC crew members at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane took classes in outdoor skills, geocaching and wildlife management, constructed picnic pads for park visitors, rebuilt a crumbling historical stone wall and used a Global Positioning System to locate places for eight deer ex-closures in order to study how deer interact with plants and other wildlife.

This year the program, which divides youth into two three-week sessions and involves 19 state parks, has allowed 190 youth, ages 14-17, and 37 coordinators the opportunity to learn from nature and give back to the land.

"The first program I believe, which was real small, was in 2000," said Christa Kermode, special events coordinator for Sky Meadows State Park. "They do it every year. It's growing, so that's good."

The second session, which included nine groups across Virginia, ends today.

For those who missed out this year, fear not. Virginia State Parks will conduct the program again next summer.

"There's an extensive application process," said Kermode, but that detail should not scare off potential crew members.

Nina Lukow, 16, of Culpeper, signed up at the last minute.

"My friend told me about it the night before applications were due, and I kind of signed up for it on a whim," she said. "Really, I signed up for it to see if I'd get it."

She got it all right, that and a lot more. Besides having the chance to live away from home for several weeks, helping the others make meals and carry out other chores, she worked up to seven hours a day, five days a week, earning a stipend of $500 for the summer. Supervisors earn $1,500.

"I think it has [been a great experience]. I'm not used to a lot of work, so this has been good," she said. "This is my first job. ... It's good, 'cause I'm shoving myself into this environment."

But could someone really decide to make a career from this experience?

"I might," Lukow said, "but I'd also like other things, too, [to] immerse myself in other situations."

"It's been very helpful, I guess, for college," said Amanda Maready, 17, of Powhatan.

"This is my first time catching a fish. This is my second year with YCC," she said. Her first was at First Landing State Park, formerly Seashore State Park, by the Chesapeake Bay. "But I love this park, it's a very different change of scenery."

"I'm really interested in conservation work and environmental studies," said Susanna Byrd, 20, of Charlottesville, a rising senior at Kenyon College in Ohio. "It seemed like the right thing to do."

She had always wanted to be a camp counselor, and working as a supervisor with the YCC seemed like the perfect way to combine that ambition with a love for the outdoors.

"It's really seeing what it's like to work in the state park," said Byrd. "All the hard work that goes into [making] the picnic pads."

Positive feedback from friends, family and park staff has served a large part in the program's promotion.

"My two cousins did it and they said it was great," said Kate Melton, 14, of Mechanicsville. When asked about her favorite part of the experience, she said "Probably meeting new friends. I like meeting new people."

Her friend Emily Hastings also applied, independently, and was assigned to the same group of girls.

"I was actually at an RV show and there was a booth," said Hastings, 14, of Mechanicsville. A Virginia State Parks Service employee filled in Hastings on the benefits of the YCC, and she was convinced.

"The state parks try to reach out to the youth a lot," said Kermode. "Most of our programs are geared toward families and kids. ... So they can gain an appreciation for nature and be environmental stewards in the future."

Though the heart of the program is to improve upon and protect the land for future generations, participants have the chance to do the usual camp activities as well, from fishing and hiking to tubing on the Shenandoah River, something that Lukow was looking forward to.

"Tubing. I'm excited," she said of the group's plans to go last Saturday. "Sunday, we're going to the zoo. Yay, pandas!"

The girls had visited Washington the previous weekend as well.

"We went to the Museum of Natural History," Maready said. "We went to the National Gallery of Art."

"We don't just do environmental programs," Shrader said. They also learned about the history of Fauquier County, including the life of John Mosby, a Civil War Confederate cavalry battalion commander, whose name has been memorialized throughout the area.

"This is my seventh year," said Shrader, whose father is manager of Belle Isle State Park in Lancaster County. "I started as a crew member when I was 15."

The wide variety of educational offerings draws students of all interests.

"I'm going to do public history museum archiving," said supervisor Kaitlin Shiflett, 19, a rising sophomore history major at Longwood University.

"I'd done the program before as a crew member for two years," said the Lynchburg resident. She has worked at Occoneechee State Park near Clarksville and at Grayson Highlands State Park in southwestern Virginia, "And that's where I found my love of hiking," she said.

The program is open to boys and girls, separating them into camping groups according to sex. Food preferences also are taken into account.

"We have a vegetarian and a vegan, so we try to come up with good meals for them," said Byrd.

"They always stay at our Timberlake House," Kermode said of those who work at Sky Meadows. This year and last Sky Meadows hosted a girls' group.

"The girls who do the program, it's amazing the camaraderie they get," she said.

"It's an awesome park, great house," said Maready. "They're very accommodating here."

For more information about the Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps, call 800-933-PARK or visit the Web at www.virginiastateparks.gov.

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