Tall, ghost lights surround an abandoned baseball field next to the Charleston Baptist Association Camp near Benton. Rolled-up outfield fence rusts in a nearby trash pile. Two bases, overgrown with grasses and desert-like plants, remain anchored in the sandy soil.
Twenty-five years ago, local church teams spotted fly balls courtesy of those 1500-watt beacons. These days, another kind of illumination guides the teams of young men and women at work and play here. Under the summer sun these youngsters chase down native seed, swing away at invasive trees, dig firelines and, sad but true, throw out the last traces of the ball diamond.
“There’s a couple of the poles we pulled out. Here’s some of the fence we tore up. That building right there? We knocked it over,” said James, pointing out projects his seven-member team completed over the summer of 2004. “It’s one of the last sand prairies in Missouri and we’re helping to preserve it. That’s pretty cool.”
James and his crew are part of a Missouri Conservation Department summer program. The Southeast Youth Conservation Corps is now in its third year of operation. Although there are additional SYCC crews in Marble Hill, Cape Girardeau, Scott City and Pilot Knob, James’ crew is unique. At the end of the day, the members return to the same place—the Division of Youth Services (DYS) facility in New Madrid.
The idea of paying young people to improve the environment dates back to the Great Depression. Between 1933 and 1941, more than three million young men fought fires, planted trees, built parks and, most importantly, learned to care about the outdoors as members of the great social and conservation experiment called the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In Missouri, over 100,000 out-of-work “CCC boys” between the ages of 16 and 25 lived in 41 camps scattered around the state. For their work, they earned $30 a week, $25 of which was sent home to their parents.
This concept lives on as Youth Conservation Corps. Today, 32 states have Youth Conservation Corps, employing more than 23,000 young men and women annually.
Southeast Youth Corps members range in age from 15 to 19. They come from rural and urban settings, representing a cultural cross-section. Many members hail from low-income families.
“When you come out here, you see a lot of stuff you don’t hardly ever see. I think it’s very educational,” said Dustin, another member of the DYS crew. He likes the idea that he’s doing something for more than his own gain. “It’s helping my community,” he said.
The Southeast Youth Corps is funded half by the Conservation Department’s Outreach and Education and Human Resources divisions, and half by the following partner agencies: Cape Girardeau and New Madrid Missouri Mentoring Partnership, East Missouri Action Agency and the Division of Youth Services.
Dennis Reagan, director of the Cape Girardeau group, secured funds to pay youth salaries for the Marble Hill crew. “It’s a great program. Young people gain work skills and learn about Missouri’s conservation efforts,” he said.“It’s exactly the kind of thing these kids need.”
Bob Gillespie, a natural history biologist with the Conservation Department, manages the sand prairie restoration. He coordinated projects with the crews.“What’s most important to me, is I was able to give these groups of young adults projects, fairly difficult projects,” said Gillespie. “They took pride in what they were doing, and they completed them with a fervor.”
If anyone had the fervor it was Tonya, the only girl in the 2004 Marble Hill crew. Like many of the participants, this was her first job. She knew little about natural communities prior to working with them.
“Before, I didn’t even know there were sand prairies in Missouri,” said Tonya. “I thought prairies were in deserts or something.”
With the help of a work-study internship through East Missouri Action Agency, Tonya continued working part time for the Conservation Department after the 2004 summer program ended. Then she went to work for the Southeast Youth Corps again, this time as a crewleader.
A nationwide study conducted by Abt and Associates in 1997 found that youth corps make a difference in young people’s lives. The study determined that women and minorities, in particular, increased their educational attainment, improved their ability to get and hold a job, and participated in more civic activities like volunteering and voting after their experience in a youth corps.
Having worn both crewmember and crewleader hats, Tonya agrees.
“It brings people from different backgrounds together, and it teaches them about our environment and about work ethics all at the same time,” said Tonya. “I saw a lot of changes in the boys on the crew. Like the one boy, his paycheck went to help his grandma. It made him mature a lot.”
The same study reviewed numbers and found youth corps return $1.60 in benefits, the value of corpsmembers’ work, for every $1 in costs.
In 2005, crewmembers who worked at least 300 hours received an Americorp Education Award of $1,000 each. This is money set aside in each youth’s name for college, trade or vocational school. Funding for this award comes from the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps or NASCC.
New crewmembers make minimum wage, $5.15 per hour. Those returning for their second year earn $6.15 per hour. After four weeks on the job, crewmembers are eligible for a 50 cent per hour raise.
The Conservation Department provides crewleaders, vans, tools, projects, crewleader training, environmental education and some youth salary funds. Partners provide the majority of youth salaries, job readiness training and things like boots and gloves.
Sally Prouty, executive director of NASCC, says she knows why youth corps works.
“I saw hundreds of young men and women come into the corps looking down at their toes. After two or three months, they would look me in the eye and tell me about their plans to get their lives in order, to go back to school, to move into jobs or college. They would talk about making good decisions and improving their chances for a better life. Every community should have a corps.”
As for Tonya, she plans on going to college next year to study either business or the environment. She says the youth corps experience helped her because, “having a job helps you set your boundaries.” Tonya said she was surprised to learn that Conservation Department worked with people as well as the land.
“I knew what the Conservation office was. But I didn’t know how involved they were with the communities.”
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