Up on Mount Emily north of La Grande, the air is fresh and clean and the views go on forever. It’s a great place to play, and an even better place to work.
GAINFULLY EMPLOYED: The work crew doing trail maintenance on Mount Emily takes a break and smiles for the camera during a work shift last Thursday. In all, 60 Union County youngsters are employed in Training and Employment Consortium’s Summer Youth Program, working on the Mount Emily Recreation Area, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, at Ladd Marsh and other sites. Summer Youth Program funding got a boost this year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Observer photo/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
Nothing could be finer, according to the Union County youngsters who have jobs this summer through Training and Employment Consortium’s Summer Youth Program.
“It’s good work. We get to come outside and see the great beauty of the outdoors,” said 17-year-old Keegan Fleming, one of 20 young people helping improve the Union County-owned Mount Emily Recreation Area.The Summer Youth Program got a big boost this year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the bill signed this year by President Obama to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
Teri Simonis, TEC’s executive director, said that 60 young people, including 20 on Mount Emily, are working at sites across the county, making improvements that will last for years. Their wages are being paid with AARA funds.
Simonis said she likes the program because the young people are learning job skills and making tangible, lasting improvements.
“When they get done, they’ll have something they can look back on and be proud of,” she said.
For the past eight years, TEC’s Summer Youth Program, which mainly serves people 16-18 years old, has suffered from a lack of funding.
Simonis said she remembers a time when 60 enrolled youths was the norm, but that number has been sharply reduced because of budget cuts.
But this year, TEC got about $74,000 in AARA money to put 68 young clients into work readiness classes, and 60 of those in paying jobs. Another $6,000 paid for equipment.
Two crews of 10 are working on Mount Emily, and two more crews of 10 are employed on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest. Other, smaller crews are working in Elgin, Union, North Powder and La Grande, and for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at Ladd Marsh.
“We’re giving our clients job skills and helping them build work references,” said Lynn Trice, a TEC workforce development supervisor. “They’re learning teamwork, and at the same time they’re giving something back to the community.”
The work readiness program features classroom training on how to get and keep a job. Students learn to develop a resume, fill out a job application, interview for a job, and more.
Clients who complete work readiness are placed in the work experience program. They get jobs where they practice hands-on skills and bring home a paycheck.
Krystal Johnson, 18, said she heard about TEC’s program through Pam Dodds of the La Grande High School Career Center. Like most youngsters in the program, Johnsonliked the idea of working in the woods most of all.
“It sounded interesting because I wanted to get outside,” she said.
On the day she was interviewed for this story, Johnson was working on the MERA alongside four young men. She said it didn’t bother her to be the only female.
“I have to work just as hard as they do. I wouldn’t want them to cut me any slack. I can work as hard as they can,” she said.
Projects on the MERA include fence building and repair, trail inventory, construction of signs for trailheads and intersections, and general clean-up.
The big emphasis, though, is on improvement and maintenance of the area’s all-terrain vehicle, horseback and bicycle trails.
“We’re building trails and closing off trails we don’t need,” said Kyle Sandoval, 16, of La Grande.
The U.S. Forest Service works with TEC’s Summer Youth Program every summer, but this year, because of the AARA funds, more is getting done.
“We normally have one crew, but this year we’ve got two,” said Arlene Blumton, program coordinator for the Forest Service. “It’s awesome. The kids get the work experience, plus they learn about the Forest Service and stewardship of natural resources.”
She said Summer Youth Program crews are working mainly in recreational areas, maintaining campgrounds and improving trails.
Blumton said it isn’t unusual for a Summer Youth Program worker to seek a career in the Forest Service.
“They get interested and some apply for work with us,” she said.
All the workers in the Summer Youth Program receive safety training and are supervised by adult team leaders. TEC hired eight leaders this summer, paying their wages from a funding source other than AARA.
“The community benefits because the money stays in the community,” said Tracy May, a TEC youth workforce development specialist.