By Michael Sweet.
Nineteen-year-old Mitch Blake squints through the hot afternoon sunlight at a gnarled tree limb overhanging a creekside path and pushes his hard hat higher on his forehead. He signals two members of his crew to come over and they discuss whether they should break out the chainsaw or not. After a few minutes they decide that the limb doesn’t need to come down quite yet but they note its location to check on it later in the year. They continue down the path, scanning either side of the trail for an offending limb or vine to trim. The rest of their crew is slogging through the creek in ankle-deep water, occasionally stopping to haul out branches, trash and other debris.
Scenes like that one are commonplace for the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps. Since 2009, the Youth Ecology Corps (or SCYEC as it is affectionately called by its participants) has been bettering the lives of Sonoma County youth while at the same time saving the county money in skilled labor and preventative services.
The program serves as a jobs and workforce training program for the youth and also provides outdoor education and environmental stewardship. For some of the program participants it is their first job. They have the opportunity to learn the fundamentals – how to work on a team, how to conduct themselves at work, and (everyone’s favorite) how to receive constructive criticism. And on top of the training and education, they earn a paycheck for all their hard labor.
And what about Sonoma County? What does the county get out of all this? Well to start they get a lot of extra hands helping out. The Sonoma County Water Agency has received a lot of praise for their work with SCYEC. Last December the county experienced flooding significant storm that in the past might have caused some flooding but all the channels and creeks designed for flood control worked perfectly, thanks to the youth’s quality work.
But it is not just about the extra help the county gets maintaining trails, streams, and beaches. The youth have something to do and somewhere to go during the long hours of summer. It gives them purpose! In fact some of the youth are so taken by the work, they apply for careers with the Water Agency. As Tom Tolliver, Director of Natural Resource Programs for the Conservation Corps North Bay, told me, “We are beginning to raise the next generation of resource managers.”
To date, the program has had more than 1,300 young people go through the program and has maintained 37 miles of creek channels, restored 31 miles of trails, and cleaned 11 beaches. Gustavo Contreras, a Sonoma County Water Agency Maintenance Worker and graduate of the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps said it best: “The program works. It keeps kids out of trouble, it gives them a paycheck and it helps the community. The program works.”