Teens hit pay dirt with Youth Conservation Corps

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Madeline Belliveau thought she'd clean up working an after-school dishwashing job. But even with the regular paycheck, the 17-year-old Halifax girl soon wanted to get her hands out of the sink and into something dirtier.

"I didn't want to be in the kitchen anymore," says the incoming Brattleboro Union High School senior. "I wanted to be outside."

Student employment opportunities have decreased over the past decade as entry-level jobs once given to teenagers have been taken by recession-ravaged adults or transformed into unpaid internships. Then Belliveau heard about the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, whose members are blazing trails — literally — as they tend to farmland and forests statewide.

"This," Belliveau recalls thinking, "is a rare opportunity."

That's confirmed by 300 peers now working for a non-profit environmental education program based on the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps, which paid Depression-era Americans to build hiking paths, ski hills and state parks.

"Vermont needs our high school students to be well trained to work," VYCC executive director Breck Knauft says. "Through service, we help young people gain skills and a real sense of place."

Student employment, which peaked at nearly two-thirds of all U.S. teenagers four decades ago, has dropped to only one-third, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Working at a fast food restaurant or convenience store — places that used to be the province of youth — is no longer a sure thing.

VYCC gives students ages 15 to 24 the opportunity to earn minimum wage ($10.50 an hour in Vermont) and work experience. The job, however, is no summer vacation. Instead of sleeping in, Belliveau has risen early weekdays so she can labor eight full hours at Brattleboro's Retreat Farm, Putney Mountain and Wilmington's Lake Raponda.

While most youth greet the season's heat and humidity with shorts and sandals, VYCC members wear heavy long shirts, pants and boots to protect themselves from tools and insects that are part of a "potential hazards" list they review every morning.

Prepared for mosquitos and ticks? Slips, trips and falls? Poison plants? Dehydration? Branches such as the one that just dropped from the tree towering above?

"There are a lot of reasons you wear a hard hat," Belliveau says. "That's one of them."

The work that follows is equally pummeling. This Independence Day wasn't a holiday for the crew. Instead, Belliveau hiked two miles to a job site, where she wielded a shovel and sledgehammer during a heatwave that didn't break until two days later, when she toiled in the rain until a thunderstorm brought the crew back to its transport van and tool truck.

Vermonters can see the results when they hike public trails cleared of invasive plants and marked by new signs, steps and bridges. VYCC also is improving watersheds and, through its Health Care Share program, growing fruits and vegetables at its Richmond farm for distribution through doctor's offices, hospitals and community clinics.

"People think of us as just trails," Knauft says, "but we're far more."

As a nonprofit, VYCC funds its $3 million annual budget through individuals and institutions who contribute donations or contract for crew work.

"We want to be a hands-on education and training provider, but we have three times as many applications as we have positions," Knauft says. "That's a sign there needs to be more meaningful employment and service opportunities for young people."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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