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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kids in the Woods

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Ruth Page reflects on the many benefits of youth conservation programs. Putting young people to work for the environment benefits the land, society, and most of all the kids themselves.


CURWOOD: There's a bit of good news about kids this Earth Day, and commentator Ruth Page is more than happy to tell us about it.

PAGE: What the nation's Youth Service Corps need is better PR. Most often in the news are ghastly young people who do horrid things. But many states have programs in which youth age 16 to early 20s work on public or preservation lands to clean up and repair parts of the outdoor environment their elders have despoiled. Teams of kids, uniformed and hardhatted, fix nature trails, repair bridges, improve drainage, move huge rocks, reroof park buildings, reseed and plant, clean out waterways. One 17-year-old said, incredulously, "I gathered so much junk from that little pond, we had to bring in a truck." Some corps even manage public parks for a season.

Many of the youth come from disadvantaged homes or inner cities. Many have never before walked in a rural field, or waded a wild brook, or climbed a tree, or seen a bog, or cooked outdoors, or even gone swimming. In their own words, they're blown away when they're shown such a different world so near by. Many team leaders are former members of the corps, and the professionals running the programs are practical and knowledgeable.

Youth respects obvious know-how. They expect only to learn outdoor skills, but they actually ingest facts by the brainload. When a lad points to a mushroom, he's staggered to be told that it's a fruit with tiny underground threads that reach way past that big stand of trees. A girl sees for the first time how nature's camouflage works, when she's startled by a snake that matches the grass.

Most of the youth are surprised to find that when they work with a team of peers and get hot, wet, and exhausted together, they become friends. Do they mind laboring for zero or scanty pay? Hah. Large numbers always ask, "Can I join again next year?" Participants are paid in most states. In California, they get minimum wage. In Vermont, they get $1,000 for 8 weeks tough labor. For all of them, visible accomplishment, something other people will see, is the greatest reward. Working, eating, and living outdoors raises self-confidence. Some who have never in their lives been praised for anything glow when visitors stop to ask about the work they're doing. And as one young Vermonter said in surprise, at the end of last summer's service, "Most of all, I learned about myself."

CURWOOD: Commentator Ruth Page lives in Burlington, Vermont. She comes to us from Vermont Public Radio.



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