Oregon Youth Are Gonna Work It Out!
How a hand-up - rather than a hand-out - is helping young Americans go back to work.
interview and photos by Matt Christenson
Katie Wetzel is showing me Wolf Creek, one of the most economically-struggling towns in Oregon. She wants me to get a picture of the challenges faced by youths in this region.
Looking at the vast number of closed stores and businesses - to include a local lumber mill that was once the lifeblood of the town - I ask, "Do people ever just up and move?"
Katie, a planner for the BLM as well as a woman of infinite patience perfectly suited for working with youths, gives me a look that says, There are no dumb questions...but that one was pretty close.
But instead of saying so, she politely answers, "Most of these young people are part of families who have lived here for generations. They're taking care of parents, raising their own children, and keeping these communities alive." Katie pauses to look around her, as if seeing it anew through my fresh eyes. "And when towns and states everywhere are facing the same challenges, where else can they go?"
I was spending half a day with Katie and the Jefferson Conservation Corps (JCC), an employment initiative designed to give 19 to 25 year-olds some initial training and small (very small) financial support to help them launch their own contracting crew. The idea was to reach out to out-of-work youths, bursting with untapped talents and motivations, and impart basic skills to put them on the road to self-sufficiency.
A hand-up rather than a hand-out, if you will.
Contracting crews are particularly crucial in heavily forested areas such as theirs in southwestern Oregon. Fire, an omnipresent threat, can do wonders with a forest full of uncleared scrub brush and branches and dead logs.
This is where a crew such as the JCC comes in to care for the outdoors and perform manual labor ridding these lands of "fire fuel." Their employers range from public agencies like the BLM to the private timber industry.
As I documented this successful project with a short video about the JCC*, I also chatted Katie about her personal experience serving as the spark plug to help youths find productive sustainable employment.
In Her Own Words
A Conversation with Katie Wetzel
BLM Sponsor, Jefferson Conservation Crew
YOUTHS IN RURAL OREGON are typically some of the most versatile and hard working in the nation. They are raised within families in communities who intuitively understand that working in the natural environment surrounding them is their best option to support their families. These youths learn at a very early age to mend fences, build barns, cut firewood, till soil, harvest timber, and raise livestock. Most of them know how to operate a variety of heavy equipment by the age of 10 and run chainsaws by the age of 12. They are accustomed to working long hard hours - sun up to sun down, seven days a week. They, and youth like them, are the foundation of America.
I GOT THE IDEA to start the Jefferson Conservation Corps many years ago while raising my own children in rural Oregon. It was obvious from the start that there were little to no wage earning opportunities for my children, let alone the hundreds of other youth striving for a sustainable future. Yes, some would move away from their communities, attend colleges, and inevitably gain employment in far-away metropolitan areas. However, for those youth whose families, farms, or family-run businesses were dependent upon them, they had the difficult responsibility of staying within their communities and finding a way to carve out a livelihood. I thought if we could come up with a way to give these youths as much training and experience as possible in all aspects of natural resource management, then someday they would be able to sustain their families while remaining in their communities. They could accomplish this by working for natural resource management agencies or by creating their own small businesses which support natural resource management.
THE FIRST STEP was to come up with the plan, both short and long term, then obtain support from local organizations and agencies. The necessary support included professional mentoring and training, academics, and funding to ensure the youths' wages while they trained and worked within the program. Involvement had to be partnerships between Federal, State, County, and local organizations, all working together toward the common goal of program success. Employees of these agencies and organizations who were involved had to be creative people able to "think outside of the box" if the program was going to work. This partnership process has had its challenges, but it has also had its successes and continues to grow. To date, agencies and organizations have provided grants, contracts, medical services, legal services, clothing, higher education opportunities, certifications, facilities, vehicles, and administrative overhead for the program. The BLM continues to be the mainstay for supporting the program through grants and contracted funds to accomplish project work.
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND LOCAL COMMUNITIES, by working as partners, have the ability to accomplish incredible feats. And this program is just one successful example. It was obvious from the start that within the Medford District, several rural communities were suffering the effects of dwindling timber programs. These communities, located at the far edges of their respective counties, were becoming ghost towns full of abandoned businesses, vacant homes, closed schools and libraries, and zero public services. However, the youth were still there, desperately trying to maintain their families,farms, or Dad's once thriving logging business. With the Department of the Interior's Youth in the Great Outdoors initiative, coupled with grant dollars as seed money associated with the initiative, the opportunity arose to be creative about engaging youth in natural resource management. This was the perfect time in the exact right communities to start a Conservation Corps program with local young adults. What better way could the BLM give back to these communities than to augment the loss of local timber-related jobs by providing a jobs and training program for their youths?
I HAD TO SMILE when, at the first public meeting I facilitated to introduce the program to the community, I entered the building one hour early to get things set up and was shocked to see a full room of young adults, parents, and community leaders, already there and awaiting my presentation. Now if that didn't tell me the community was receptive concerning the program, I don't know what else would!
HALF THE BATTLE was trying to figure out how to accommodate the hundred plus applicants we had for the program positions. We were only able to fund 15 positions to begin with, and the long lines of applicants wishing to fill those positions created an instant challenge. Clearly the need and desire for employment and training was there. Continued funding for the program has been the greatest obstacle to date. The JCC's members receive full time wages, are covered by insurance, pay very high State workman's compensation charges, and are bonded for forest-related contract work. They have their own vehicles and facilities to store equipment and supplies as well as an office and educational facility to keep the program running. Unfortunately all of these items have their related costs as well.
NO ONE TOLD ME how these young people would tug so heavily at my heartstrings. What they have experienced in life, their personal challenges, their community challenges, the level of poverty in which they live, I would have never dreamed of what I now know to be true. I am amazed on a daily basis at the strength of these youths to overcome some of the most terrific barriers anyone could possibly imagine. Every one of the JCC's members has a life story that would absolutely make your knees give out if you heard it - shocking tales of life that are so incredible one wonders how they have even survived.
THE HARDEST PART about helping with this program is not being able to hire all of the really wonderful young adults who want to work for JCC. It's so hard to have to say to struggling youths, "No, I am sorry - all of our positions are filled." I have never seen such hard working, dedicated, appreciative young adults in my career. And it's sad to know that, as one of our crew members best stated, "This is the ONLY show happening. There is no other work available!"
SUCCESS IS NOT just creating this program. Anyone could do that. It's not about counting the widgets of how many youths we hired. It's not just about getting a multitude of otherwise unfunded work successfully accomplished on public lands.
SUCCESS IS taking a vested interest in these amazing youths and helping them to achieve their dreams. It's about sustaining and growing this program, giving hope for a bright and successful future to young adults, seeing them thrive in their communities, feed their families, and meet their basic needs. It is about the partnerships that help these youths as well as help BLM accomplish its mission. Success is knowing that with each of our youth hires, we add economic stability to these once-flourishing, timber-dependent communities of southwest Oregon. Success is the whole of the sum, not just its parts. And no matter how difficult it may seem on some days to keep this program operational, I simply think about one of the many JCC crew members, what they have gone through in life, what they continue to go through each day to survive, and I immediately find the energy to keep going.
*Check this out! Meet the JCC in their online video. (But make sure you have a tissue nearby. Their story is both powerful and emotional.)