By Kim Walter -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Imagine taking three weeks out of your summer to live in a state park and work to make it a more beautiful, visitor-friendly environment.
That's exactly what girls, ages 14-17, have been up to since July 22 at the Shenandoah River State Park in Bentonville as part of the Department of Conservation and Recreation's Youth Conservation Corps program.
Youth from all over Virginia applied to participate, but only 17 percent of those applicants were offered a spot, according to Jennifer Saik, the park's education specialist and volunteer coordinator.
The crew members make up a diverse group and are mostly first-time participants. They are led by three crew supervisors who are colleg-aged and have participated in the program before. At the end of the three weeks, crew members and supervisors receive a stipend for the work they completed.
"The is great for the park because we've been short staffed, so getting these jobs done is so helpful," Saik said.
This summer, the group completed several physical labor projects, like installing a fence, putting a gravel walkway in place around the visitor's center and cleaning the river.
Saik said the humidity has been hard on a few of the girls, but for the most part the group has "really gotten comfortable with the work and nature."
Crew members work five days a week, with their days starting at 7 a.m. for physical training. They then work on morning and afternoon projects, followed by evening activities and daily journal entries. On the weekends, the girls experience different things the park and surrounding communities have to offer.
Last year, Shenandoah River State Park hosted a group of boys, but Saik said this year's teenaged girls haven't proven more difficult to handle.
"The thing that impressed me most about this group is how close they are and how willing they are to help each other," she said.
The crew members agreed.
"The bonding that went on between all of us as complete strangers is pretty remarkable," said 15-year-old Grace Fisher of Fredericksburg.
"I didn't know anyone coming into this, but we've made our own little weird family," said Hannah Steines, 16, of Chesterfield.
Some girls came into the program having a background in physical labor, while others had to be taught what different tools were. Grace said she welcomed the hard work.
"I think it's just part of growing up," she said. "You need to go out on a work site, get your hands dirty and accomplish something."
Hannah said she didn't regret giving up part of her summer vacation for the program, since she "just would've been sitting around at home."
None of the girls had been to park before, but their first impressions included that of "awe" and "appreciation."
"On top of this being a great experience, it's a very unique one as well," Grace said. She encouraged others to apply for future programs, as she had heard about it from a friend.
"This is all about planting a seed," Saik said of the program. "Maybe next time they're in a park they'll think twice before throwing some trash on the ground. Your thinking changes once you realize how much work goes into something."
While the program ends this weekend, and goodbyes are sure to be tough, Hannah said she's walking away with new knowledge about herself.
"I applied, you know, just to try. And I got the acceptance and I was like, woah, can I do this?" she said. "But now I know that even if I don't think I can do certain tasks, I can."