Over six weeks this summer, they hiked more than 100 miles; had up-close encounters with bears, rattlesnakes, wild boar, spiders, mice and scorpions; moved 200-pound rocks; sawed logs; lopped brush; and survived on a steady diet of Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches. There was stifling heat, torrential rains and a blanket of humidity you could almost cut with a knife. But if you ask any member of the first Southeast Youth Corps to sum up their experience,
they only have one word.
"Awesome," says Blake Hodson, 17. "It was kind of like a vacation for me. The first few days it was hard to focus on the job."
But it was a job. On June 23, seven teenagers and two adult guides hiked into the Big Frog Wilderness, the Ocoee Ranger District of the Cherokee National Forest. In six weeks time they removed downed trees, cut back brush and built rock walls and drainage systems.
The kids hailed from high schools across the region, each undergoing a lengthy interview process to be selected from more than 40 applicants. They were led by Brenna Kenney, the founder and director of SYC, and Michael Meredith, a native Tennessean who's worked several years for an Arizona corps.
Their days started promptly at 7:30 a.m., when they would put on their hard hats, grab their gear and hike to work. They cooked all their own meals, slept in tents and only got two fifteen-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch during the work day. They worked Monday through Friday, spending weekends at home in civilization.
Other times it was downright repetitive, cutting back low-hanging branches with loppers. "Those days you couldn't look at your watch. It would just make time go slower," laughs Grace Whitaker, 16, the first and only girl on the crew. "But overall it was an awesome first job-at least we weren't working at McDonald's. I wanted to do something more productive with my summer."
The experience gave Whitaker a new perspective on life, opening her eyes to entirely new career paths. And even though she woke up one morning with a mouse on her head, she can't wait to do it again next year. In fact, nearly every crew member is ready to sign up again. They're having trouble sleeping on their soft mattresses and time spent watching movies now seems incredibly dull.
It was a first job for all but one, and no one had any experience beyond helping their parents with yard work. Now they can do dry stone masonry, operate a cross-cut (two-person saw), survive back country camping and make tofu appetizing on an outdoor stove. Each was surprised just how fast the six weeks passed. "It was like getting paid to go camping and do cool stuff," says Sean Claiborne, 16.
Beyond the manual labor, the crew gained innumerable soft skills like communication, team work, promptness, how to write a resume and interview skills. Each Friday was an educational day with a different focus each week such as watershed restoration, wildlife management, forestry and first aid training. "I don't think they realize the transformation until that last week or when they get home," says Kenney. "They miss working hard, sleeping outside and being hungry for their dinner. I've had multiple parents tell me with amazement about how their kids are more communicative. They help do the dishes or unload groceries. The sense of pride that programs like this instill in youth is off the charts."
During their six-week stint they made a small dent in the roughly billions of dollars of backlogged work facing public land agencies. But they also blazed the trail for the future of Youth Conservation Corps in the Southeast. The South is the only region in the United States that doesn't have a corps in every state. Kenney, 35, knows this all too well. When she wanted to get into that line of work at age 23, she had to pack everything meaningful into her Toyota Corolla and drive to California, leaving her Louisville, Kentucky, roots. "It was good for me to broaden my experience and leave home, but kind of sad at the same time that I couldn't do what I was so passionate about in the area I grew up in," she recalls.
The impetus for her cross-country trek began shortly before college graduation. She was looking for an opportunity to broaden her horizons and "get her butt kicked." A serendipitous Internet search uncovered the California Conservation Corps, the oldest and largest conservation corps program in the world. Without ever having camped, swung a tool or even gone to the bathroom in the woods, she signed up for five-and-a half months repairing backcountry trails.
The rest is history, and Kenney spent the next decade in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado pursuing her passion for conservation work and youth development. Every job she took she'd squirrel away the manual; always knowing in the back of her mind she'd like to start a corps in the Southeast. That opportunity finally came in 2012, when she and her husband, Patrick, decided it was time to move back South (he grew up in Nashville). With the idea of a corps in mind, they narrowed their new home base down to Asheville or Chattanooga. Ultimately it was the city's recent conservation momentum that won them over.
"Chattanooga seemed more like a community that was going forward and would support a program like this," she says. "You look at all the new trails, new nonprofits and support from private businesses-it seemed like a city that maybe didn't used to do that but now really wants to."
Kenney's timing was near perfect, with her plan falling into place much faster than she anticipated. Shortly after arriving, she dropped off resumes at numerous nonprofits around town, hoping to volunteer and get to know the community while job searching. That quickly developed into a unique partnership with La Paz Chattanooga. Looking to beef up its youth programming, the local nonprofit approached Kenney for ideas based on her experience. She pitched her corps idea, which led to her becoming a member of AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service program designed to fight poverty in America. The one-year service position includes a small living stipend and encourages members to launch innovative programs in their communities.
Kenney started with a bike program, Trips for Kids, aimed at engaging underserved youth in conservation and community service. At the end of her VISTA year this May, Kenney launched Southeast Youth Corps, a nonprofit that includes the bike program as well as the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) trail program. SYC is now housed under Southwestern Conservation Corps of Colorado. "There's not a lot of corps infrastructure in the Southeast, so SCC has been great to bounce ideas off of," she says. "We would not be here without their backing and partner support."
Of course the climb to success has been as steep as any trail she's cleared. Often pulling 14-hour days she somehow manages to handle budgeting, grant writing, networking, recruiting, marketing, fundraising, writing manuals and emergency protocols, securing bikes, tools, vehicles, food and more. Thankfully she now has her own VISTA to help. And if there's anything she's learned in her 12-plus years in the woods, it's how to grit her teeth and get the job done.
"It's so exciting that it doesn't really feel like a lot," she says, sounding a lot like her inaugural trail crew. "To sound really Western, I'm just super stoked for the opportunity."