I asked Phil Helfrich, community outreach specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, what’s happening with the Youth Conservation Corps that he’s been working on with such dedication for the past few years with Fisheries Biologist Chris Kennedy in Southeast Missouri.
Here’s what he said:
There’s a new gang in town. Colors are tan and sweat. Hand signs are callouses. Looks like there are about 11 crews, six or seven teenagers in each, spread out across at least nine different Missouri cities.
You can spot them in six different Bootheel communities including Cape Girardeau. They’ve also appeared in Kansas City, Sedalia and Springfield.
There are two weird distinguishing characteristics of this gang. First, groups seem to defy traditional subgrouping stereotypes—members are black, white and Hispanic, male and female, urban and rural, at-risk and not. Second, these groups appear to be working. Hard.
Missouri is now the 40th state to provide a roof to Youth Conservation Corps. Tennessee is the latest and 41st state. All total these states are home to 113 youth corps employing more than 23,000 young men and women.
Each crew is supervised by an adult crew leader. Crew members work for eight weeks. Those 17 and up, who work at least 300 hours, get a $1,000 Americorp College Scholarship Award. Missouri Department of Conservation pays about one-third of total program costs. Partners like Mers Goodwill, East Missouri Action Agency, The Full Employment Council of Kansas City and local Workforce Investment Boards pay the rest.
We just completed four years of operating the corps here. Forty-eight young people and eight crewleaders spent the summer building trails, transplanting water willows, cleaning out sinkholes, picking up litter and, new this year, assisting our fisheries department with an alligator gar reintroduction project at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. About a third of the crews returned for their second year. A handful came back for their fourth and final year. Five other Missouri cities, including St. Louis, are considering starting up youth corps next summer.