Updated: Jun 27, 2020
Story by Benjamin Lerner
Photography courtesy VYCC
When Thomas Hark and Doris “Dot” Evans first founded the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) in 1985, their mission was simple: create a workforce readiness program to train future generations of Vermonters in nature conservation. Today, VYCC provides crucial employment opportunities for young Vermonters— offering them the opportunity to develop valuable life skills while working on innovative conservation programs.
At the time VYCC was founded, there was a shortage of staff for state parks (and other state funded conservation projects around the country) and numerous youth
corps organizations were getting their start in order to fill those needs. After the Vermont State Legislature approved funding for VYCC, they were able to help staff many of the new state parks that were opening at the time.
VYCC was modeled after the nationalized Civilian Conservation Corps programs of the 1930s. Back then, it meant young Vermonters would work to build and maintain ski resorts, state parks, and hiking trails. Over the years, VYCC has moved on to offer a variety of unique opportunities for workers with differing experience and skill levels. Through all of the growth and change, VYCC’s guiding philosophy has remained the same: by teaching future generations of Vermonters valuable skills, VYCC is not only enabling future employment opportunities and stimulating the local workforce, but they are also providing essential life experiences that help build self-esteem and foster collaboration.
Officer of Community Engagement, Llu Mulvaney-Stanak, summarizes the role that VYCC plays in the lives of their corps members, “We believe that young people can change the world, and we consider ourselves the spark that ignites that passion for a variety of different opportunities later in life.”
True to this ethical creed, VYCC not only sets up its workers for success in the fields of nature conservation and farming, but they use the power of hard work and cooperation to engage and inspire Vermont’s youth to affect positive change in the world, no matter the career path they end up choosing.
VYCC offers a range of innovative, award-winning, conservation programs that include everything from infrastructure building and water management, to farming, agricultural science, and food security. One such program is Health Care Share, where VYCC works with Vermont health care providers and regional medical centers to provide access to vegetables for patients who are dealing with food insecurity or diet-related illnesses and conditions. Each patient receives a 15- week treatment course of vegetables, which are distributed to them through their health care provider. All of the vegetables are grown, gleaned, packed, and delivered by a VYCC member.
VYCC has also developed both daytime and overnight camping crews. In Montpelier, VYCC daycrew workers build and maintain culverts for stormwater management. In Burlington, day crews cut new trails for city parks and work to eradicate invasive species. VYCC has also partnered with the federal AmeriCorps program to teach carpentry in conjunction with conservation.
VYCC’s more advanced Spike Crews— which derive their name from tent support spikes—camp overnight in remote areas. These crews work in deep forest locations for days at a time on conservation and infrastructure projects, learning wilderness survival skills in the process. Projects that overnight crews have completed over the last year include trail work at Raven’s Ridge in North Ferrisburgh, replacement of water culverts in Pownal, and a stone staircase built at Montgomery Riverwalk Park in Montgomery.
Pro Crews offer the highest and most specialized level of VYCC training. A progression up from the others, Pro Crews are designed for seasoned VYCC corps members who want to refine their skill set in order to work at a professional level. After completing Pro Crew training, VYCC alumni are ready for full time professional work or have the option to lead and train a VYCC crew of their own.
Throughout their history, VYCC has created special identity-based crews. In the past, their award-winning American Sign Language hearing-impaired crew and a visually impaired crew worked with other volunteer organizations to assist with cleanup efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Current identity-based crews include a queer identity crew and a very popular all-female crew.
Llu articulates the importance of these identity-based groups in helping to build self-esteem for members: “Women in Wilderness is by far one of our most popular crews. We’ve discovered that this women’s crew and all other identity-based crews help to reduce the intimidation factor. It’s the kind of gateway that opens up an opportunity to say, ‘Not only can I do this, but I’ve built my confidence thanks to being around people who are like me and have a similar experience like me.’ People who work on these crews are going to want to come back and crew lead. They’re going to want to come back and work on the more challenging crews. Women in Wilderness is really intended for getting young women, and trans-identified women on the crew to bust those barriers and boost their confidence.”
In addition to building confidence across their crew programming, VYCC offers the Opportunity Youth Service Program, which provides opportunities for at-risk Vermont youth who are out of school and unemployed. According to Mulvaney-Stanak, when considering how to best accommodate potential corps members, it isn’t only about considering the physical obstacles to success, but potential mental obstacles as well.
According to Llu, “It doesn’t matter if it’s somebody who’s graduating high school and doesn’t know what they want to do. Or if it’s somebody who’s dropped out and can’t hold a job. Whatever it is, VYCC is acting as that initial spark that’s going to teach them personal and hands-on skills. We really try to pay attention to the mental health side. We are seeing higher incidences of anxiety, and we encounter young folks having a really hard time with transitioning into adulthood. But I see the young people that I worked with 10 to 15 years ago, who were really struggling with their identity or mental health issues who are now happy, healthy, successful people in all sorts of different fields. I see what the long-term impacts are. It makes me feel like I’m doing my part to help change the world for the better.”
Through the expansion and reinvention at VYCC over the years, trail building has remained a consistent pillar of their conservation work program. Trail building serves as a perfect metaphor for the larger impact of the work that VYCC is doing. When these young workers complete a trail building project, they aren’t just building a trail path, they are creating a path to their own future paved with the life skills that they learn in the process.
The real long-term power of every project at VYCC cannot be purely measured in the impact that it has on ecosystems or infrastructure or public health. It’s measured in the number of young Vermonters whose lives are shaped by their experiences working together. It’s measured in the number of VYCC workers who face insurmountable odds and mental obstacles, who are able to confront their challenges and find confidence and self-esteem—skills they use to self-advocate and create a positive future for themselves. By giving Vermont’s youth a chance to discover their true potential, VYCC not only builds trails, staircases, farms, and infrastructure, but a brighter destiny for the state of Vermont.
2083 East Main Street
Richmond, VT 05477