Unique program introduces urban youngsters to state parks, outdoor recreation and career opportunities

Summer Youth Employment Initiative participants Freddie Garland and Tyler Smith split firewood

Sept. 26, 2013

A couple of Michigan state parks have new amenities -- and one has fewer invasive plants -- because of a unique program that brings inner-city youths to state parks to work on park projects and experience the outdoors lifestyle.

The Summer Youth Employment Initiative is a joint effort of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). It was created at the same time as MEDC's Community Ventures Program, which focuses on helping unemployed individuals find opportunities. Both programs operate in Flint, Saginaw, Detroit and Pontiac, explained Murdock Jemerson, a DNR Parks and Recreation Division supervisor who oversees the program for the department.

Malandra McCoy of Detroit and Oshin Bailey of Pontiac paint a building at Sleeper State Park.This past summer, 36 youths from Detroit spent time at Wilderness State Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, building picnic tables, clearing brush and invasive plants and installing wood chips on a long trail through the park. A bigger crew, which included not only Detroit youngsters but many from Pontiac as well, spent three days and two nights at Sleeper State Park near Caseville, where they built and installed signs, built picnic tables, painted and stained buildings, and split and bundled firewood that is sold to campers at the park.

"The kids are fun," said Kim Kaufmann, unit supervisor at Sleeper. "This is the first time we've done a multi-day overnight work program with them. Some of them are really motivated."

The 91 campers at Sleeper State Park rotated through various jobs during their first two days at the park, and then spent the third morning enjoying recreational opportunities before heading back to southeast Michigan. While working, they were supervised by AmeriCorps volunteers, who are part of the National Civilian Community Corps program.

An AmeriCorps volunteer shows youths at Sleeper State Park how to build a picnic table.The AmeriCorps crew (themselves 18- to 22-year-olds) showed the kids how to use tools -- everything from wrenches to routers -- while making sure the picnic tables and signs were built properly and the work was conducted safely.

"It's been a really great experience," said Vinnie Beyer, a 21-year-old from Bloomington, Ind., who was taking a break from college to work for AmeriCorps. "We work together as a group with urban youths who maybe don't get a chance to get out very much, maybe never get to a state park. The ages of the youths are 16 to 19, so we're really from the same generation -- we're really not that much older -- so we have more in common than you might think and it's neat to meet people you might not have otherwise ever met."

In its second year, the Summer Youth Employment Initiative was expanded to include the state park/camping element thanks to a suggestion from DNR Parks and Recreation Division Chief Ron Olson.

DNR worker Gene Chamagne shows Brianna Jackson, left, and Rickia Mathews how to bundle firewood.Jemerson said he chose Wilderness and Sleeper for the program because both parks had adequate cabins available to handle the youngsters.

"I wanted to break them in slowly," said Jemerson, who works out of the DNR's Rose Lake field office near Lansing. "These groups really don't have the equipment to take these kids tent camping."

Jemerson worked with community social service groups to find participants for the program.

"I think it's a great program, but if you talk with some of the social service agency heads, you'll get an even stronger endorsement of the importance of this program," Jemerson said. "A lot of these kids, frankly, would be sitting around doing nothing this summer. I'd rather they do nothing up here than out on the streets."

The state park work/camping experience is just a small part of the overall program, said LaTonya Dolton, a program coordinator with The Youth Connection, Inc., a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that brought some of the youngsters to the parks.

"It's a 19-week program from June to late September," she said, "We had this program last year but this is the first time we went camping. Ninety percent of these kids have never been camping before. Some of them had never seen a horse or a cow before. Some kids had never had s'mores; they didn't even know how to roast marshmallows."

AmeriCorps volunteer Nick Costantino shows Loreal Mason how to use a router.Dolton became involved with the program when one of her own youngsters -- 17-year-old Michael -- joined up. She said it's been a great way to show young people opportunities they wouldn't know about, and she has been surprised by how receptive the kids have been.

"Most of our kids have a good attitude," she said. "Even our girly girls are going right at it. I'm amazed and pleased."

Alexis Wardlaw, a 16-year-old who attends Denby High School in Detroit, said she was referred to the program by her teacher.

"I wanted to try something different," she said. "I've never been to this part of Michigan before, never been camping. It's new."

Dolton said both the AmeriCorps volunteers and the DNR staff "have been great" and have not only taught the youngsters some work skills, but given them an opportunity to development leadership skills, as well. She noticed, for instance, when the kids went canoeing, those who caught on quickly began helping the others who didn't.

Nicole Hill, the program director at The Youth Connection, said the kids worked at Wayne County Parks planting trees or at Milliken State Park on the Detroit riverfront before they went "up north" for the overnights.

"The experience they receive is second to none," she said. "Most of our youth -- and I mean 98 percent of them -- have never done anything like this. We're getting them ready for work and exposing them to career opportunities. There are jobs in the DNR -- law enforcement, fire-fighting -- and this experience shows them the variety of opportunities available to them."

For more information on camping and other outdoor recreation opportunities and programs at Michigan state parks, visit www.michigan.gov/stateparks. To learn more about career paths within the DNR, visit www.michigan.gov/dnrjobs.