Teenagers Are Getting Paid To Dig Trails In Their Communities This Summer

Corpsmembers from the SECC Youth Conservation Corps dig new trail. Photo courtesy of Brenna Kelly.

Teenagers in spots around the country can get their hands dirty by digging trails and giving back to their community this summer.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Southeast Conservation Corps (SECC) is leading teenagers aged 16-18 through summer youth programs. The programs focus on communal living and teach teenagers professional and personal skills.

Brenna Kelly started the SECC in 2013, after being a part of conservation crews on the west coast and realizing there weren’t any similar programs in the Southeast.

The Youth Conservation Corps program engages participants in trail building and maintenance, watershed restoration, fencing, tree planting, and invasive plant removal, on public lands like national parks and forests.

“It’s a positive, healthy lifestyle for them to get into,” said Brenna Kelly. “[We’re] helping them get into places that otherwise, they might not see.”

The SECC is an Americorps affiliate, so members are completing terms of national service when they work with one of the SECC programs.

The typical youth crew, from either an in-town program or a camping program, has two leaders and six corpsmembers. Monday through Thursday the crew is out digging trail and maintaining trails and natural areas. On Fridays, the program breaks for educational outings like bird watching or first aid training, and wraps up the logistics for the week.

At night, when participants of the camp crew have finished up the day’s duties, the crew leaders share educational lessons on topics like the history of the conservation corps, or fire education.

Some of the corpsmembers hold jobs outside of the SECC though, and find that an in-town crew, which returns to the Chattanooga headquarters at the end of the day, is a better fit.

“It amazes me how busy some of their lives are and they’re still wanting to do this work,” said Kelly.

Many of the corpsmembers from 2013 came back the following years until they aged out of the youth program. Then they joined adult programs and some went on to find full-time employment with state and federal wildlife programs.

In the years following 2013, the same thing happened with new participants. Corpsmembers enjoyed it so much, they kept applying every year. Kelly says that now she has more applicants than spots available.

Aside from the conservation corps programs, Kelly also leads a local Trips for Kids chapter for kids 12-15. In this program, Kelly empowers the youth by bicycling and at the end of the course, they have earned a new or slightly used mountain bike.

Particpants from the Trips for Kids program pose for a shot. Photo courtesy of Brenna Kelly.

In Northern Arizona, the Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance (PMBA) is following suit and looking to mentor young, Prescott-area youth while fostering healthy habits and engaging in the community. PMBA offers volunteer trail stewardship and paid internship programs this summer.

In the trail stewardship program, participants can expect to spend about four hours at a time working on the trails, for one to two days over the course of the year. PMBA has eight dates from May to December on the calendar already.

In PMBA’s new paid internship program, which models a youth conservation corps program, interns will be trained by and supervised by a full-time adult crew, which is contracted from the Prescott National Forest.

Brenna Kelly says she notices the impact these programs have on youth and even their parents at the end of the summer. They’re more resilient, have a stronger work ethic, and are more proactive.

“I love all of our programs, but the youth conservation corps is near and dear to my heart,” says Kelly. “For both of our [youth] programs, across the board, they are mentally and emotionally stronger at the end.”

Check with your local mountain bike club or advocacy group to find out about summer trail building programs for youth in your area.

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