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How I spent my summer vaction: North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps

Painting bathrooms, building fences and clearing vines may not seem like a vacation – but it’s how some North Carolina high school students chose to spend most of their summer. 

The students are part of the North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps.  The youth development program is modeled after the Federal Civilian Conservation Corps, started back in the 1930’s. The NCYCC puts together crews of 8 to 10 young people who work under the close supervision of two trained adult crew leaders on high priority conservation projects. The crews work 7 hours a day, 5 days a week on local, state, federal or land trust properties

Nearly 50 students were hired to live and work on eight sites across North Carolina this summer, with the hope that by connecting them to the land in their home state, they’ll become its next stewards.   

Crew Three has been based along the Blue Ridge Parkway on Mt. Pisgah. When we caught up with the crew on a muggy Thursday morning they were well into their work day.  

“We started the day by finishing off painting all the comfort stations,” says crew leader Rachel Funk, “These haven’t been painted in many years. Now we’re going around all the empty sites removing all the ash from the fire pits and a general clean of all the campsites, raking debris and garbage.”

Eight high school students, from all over North Carolina, disconnected from their cell phones. 

Barron Allison, 18, is from Raleigh and this is his first time in the mountains.

“When we drove up here, could see it in the horizon, the mountains, we were like, oh, man,” says Allison, “ Out here,   you are surrounded by birds and wake up to birds chirping louder than at home.”

For 7 weeks, Mt. Pisgah is home.  The crew lives in tents here on the campground.  

16 year old Daisy Foster is from Chocowinity, NC,  a small town near the coast.  

“I’ve never done anything like this before. I was kind of iffy about camping out the whole time, like I don’t know if I can do this,” says Foster, “It’s actually not that bad, not that hard. 

The mountain is also their workplace and the to-do list is a long one.  Along with painting bathrooms and cleaning campsites the crew has built a bridge, repaired steps, and cleared trails.

ncycc_clears_trails.jpg
Credit NCYCC
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NCYCC Crew 3 clears trails

  

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WCQS reporter Helen Chickering spent the morning with Crew 3 as they cleaned up the Mt. Pisgah Campground.

Seth Lamoreaux, 16,  is from Burlington.  “We did a summit trail on the Ridgeland Balsam Overlook and it was the highest point on the Parkway.

“There was Virginia creeper all overgrown, you had to walk through it with your hands held above your head. We cut it down and cut down trees.  It was a project,” says Lamoreaux, “But really worth it.”

17 year old Morgan Hunneke is from nearby Asheville. “I’ve always been into the outdoors, whether it’s paddling fishing hiking,” says Hunneke,  “ I thought it would be pretty cool to put some effort into preserving those things”

At noon, it’s time for lunch.  The crew spreads out on the ground under the trees and  amid peanut butter and crackers and cutting up, the crew breaks into the song, ‘On the Road Again’. The country western classic quickly became the crew theme song after somebody popped in a Willie Nelson CD. 

“We play it every day and sing along,” says Seth Lamoreaux, “It can get pretty crazy!”  

Soon, Lunch boxes are traded in for shovels and the crew makes their way to the other side of the campground to finish cleaning campsites.

Mila Rutter, 17,  of Gold  Hill, a small town outside of Salisbury – is keeping an eye out for critters.

“I love snakes,” says Rutter, “Every snake I see I pick up and hold.”

Jessica Johnson, 16, of Raleigh would rather hold a paintbrush.

“I really liked painting,” says Johnson.

Painting all those bathrooms,  she says, came with an unexpected benefit.

“Because we kind of get to talk to people they come in and out, and they say, hey are these open? Yeah, these are open. How was your day by the way? We get to start conversations.”

Conversations that often end with a thank you, from visitors and from National Park Service staff.

“We don't have the staffing to complete those projects at this time,” says John Bowers with the National Park Service, “they would hopefully get done in the future,  but who knows.  We are really thankful for all of their great work.”

“I think that is the best part of the job, hearing everyone say Thank you!”, says Amaris Torres, 18, of Raleigh, “it’s crazy, because not a lot of people expect young people to do this kind of stuff.”

Feedback, Torres says,  helps boost morale.

“Sometimes it gets boring like when you do painting or do trail work and you do the same thing and it’s just really tough work, keeping the same level of effort and quality is pretty tough.”

“Every day you are forced to be a part of this community, you need to pull your weight, you need to do your job,” says Assistant crew leader, Sam Shantry.

“You can see them grow as people as they gain self-confidence and they gain knowledge and know how, to not only endure back country living, but to know they can take on an experience as mentally and physically as this and come out on the other side. The whole experience is a learning process."

It’s an experience, Will Smith, 17,  of Raleigh , and his fellow crew members can't wait to share with friends and family back home.

“I’m going to come back and take my family and show them everything we did just to say I did that!” says Smith.

Jessica Johnson says she thinks she’s become more social.  “I think this whole experience without my phone and everything, makes me want to talk to people more,” says Johnson, “So I think I’ll do that” 

“I signed up because I wanted to do work that I knew was worth it,” adds Seth Lamoreaux, “I didn’t just want to work in a fast food place, I wanted to do something I knew would last and contribute to our state.”

“I think I got that,” says Lamoreaux, “It’s great out here.”

    

    

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.