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Young blood energizes State Parks

Of the hundreds of green-shirted State Parks Youth Corps workers at Missouri’s parks and historic sites this summer, Jamie Myers had the coolest job.

Myers worked as a guide at Onondaga Cave State Park, taking visitors on tours of one of America’s most spectacular caves. In the sultry heat of summer, the cave was a comfortable 57 degrees.

“They asked us what park we wanted and this is the only one I checked off,” said Myers, who is 21 and from St. James, near Onondaga. “I’d been here on field trips in elementary school.”

With record unemployment figures nationally, especially among young people, Myers was out of work and jumped at the chance when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources announced in early spring it would be hiring young people to work at parks.

“I’ve worked at McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardee’s – I was a telemarketer and a bill collector,” Myer said. “I’ve had a lot of unpleasant jobs. If I hadn’t gotten this, I’d probably still be looking for work.”

The Youth Corps program is a key part of Gov. Jay Nixon’s emphasis on introducing young people to nature by getting them to visit Missouri’s bounty of parks and historic sites. Sociologists have coined a term for an ailment impacting the generation brought up on TV, computers and video games – “nature deficit disorder.”

Bill Bryan, director of the Division of State Parks, said the Youth Corps has a three-fold mission.

“First, we wanted to buff up our parks and do some projects we wouldn’t have reached otherwise,” Bryan said. “Second, it gives young people on-the-job work training and experiences in new fields that might interest them. Third, they get to experience the outdoors and become ambassadors for the state park system.”

There was a fourth, unplanned, benefit, he said.

“This young enthusiasm of vim and vigor has really translated to our own staff,” Bryan said. “They’re getting as much out of this program as the young people are.”

With the letters SPYC on those green shirts, the crews quickly became known as the “Spicy Kids.”

A thousand young workers

The program was funded by $3 million in federal money, which allowed for a minimum-wage salary for up to 480 hours of work. The state paid for tools, materials and supervision.

The applicants had to be 17 to 24 years old, and have a barrier to getting a job. For most of the workers, that barrier was a lack of experience. The majority of the positions had an income-eligibility requirement, but all youths were eligible regardless of family income.

The jobs were advertised through schools, churches, community centers and other outlets, with an on-line application process. At the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site in St. Louis, nearly 1,000 young people applied for the 34 positions. Those hired said they heard about the jobs from teachers, parents and the Internet.

By mid-summer, 772 people had been hired throughout Missouri.

“We’ll hit 1,000 for sure,” Bryan said. “The goal is 1,000 to 1,300.”

The green shirts could be seen at nearly every one of the 86 state parks and historic sites. Only the remotest of parks, like Grand Gulf on the Arkansas border in south-central Missouri, had problems filling their quotas.

“They’re doing everything from working on trails to roofing buildings,” Bryan said. “I saw a crew at Truman’s birthplace and I thought I was at Mark Twain. It looked like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn whitewashing a fence.”

Keeping the program alive

For some of the young people, the jobs fit nicely with their career choice.

Heather Craig, 21, is a senior at Missouri State University at Springfield, where she is majoring in anthropology and English. She was hired at Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site, where she worked on an archaeology dig.

“We found a lot of glass, ceramics, a fish hook, what we believe are military buttons and horseshoes,” Craig said. The prize find was an arm and leg of a porcelain doll that matched a tiny doll’s head found earlier.

“Originally, I wanted to do classic archaeology like in Greece or Rome,” Craig said. “Now, since I’ve had this job, I’ll focus on North American anthropology.”

Signs at state parks pointed out Youth Corps projects, and visitors couldn’t miss the army of workers.

“We’ve had a positive reaction statewide from park visitors seeing these young people in green shirts,” Bryan said.

The program’s success has led the Division of State Parks to consider continuing it next summer.

“We don’t expect to have the funds available every year to hire a thousand kids,” Bryan said. “But we’ll find a way to keep this great program alive.”