Youths Serve Society and Selves
Wisconsin Conservation Corps typifies labor projects that benefit workers and community. MODEL PROGRAM
MINERAL POINT, WIS.
FIVE burly guys in green T-shirts are up to their knees in mud, picking up boulders as if they were papier-m^ach'e fakes from Universal Studios. They're riprapping a slope: placing rocks on the side of a stream bed to stabilize the eroding bank. The team is part of the Wisconsin Conservation Corps (WCC), a four-year-old organization based on the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that put young men to work rebuilding and replanting America during the Depression. Started by some CCC alumni, the Wisconsin corps is trying to do the kinds of things the parent group did, but adapted to life in the '80s. It's the kind of program, duplicated around the country, that many proponents of national service cite as a good example.Skip to next paragraph
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In the '30s, CCC laborers in Wisconsin planted trees, cleared trails, and built picnic tables and gazebos in state parks. They lived in remote camps, earned $5 a month (another $25 was sent home to their families), and were given education leading to a high school equivalency degree, according to Emil Muelver. Now the chairman of the board of directors for the WCC, Mr. Muelver worked for the CCC for 3 1/2 years during the Depression. ``It shaped my life,'' he says. As a result of the speaking ability he developed in his work with the CCC, Muelver became a union representative.
Muelver helped organize the WCC in 1984. Following the CCC model, it has crew leaders and assistant crew leaders. But this version is updated: Almost a third of the members are young women; there are minorities and people with disabilities.
These 535 members and 89 crew leaders live at home, not in camps. It is open to all unemployed youths 18 to 25; and according to state statute, half have to be on public assistance. Paid minimum wage, they're eligible for a $500 cash bonus or a $1,500 tuition voucher if they complete the 12-month stint. Volunteers also receive 12 to 20 hours of educational assistance, including help with writing cover letters and resumes.
A federal, state, or local agency with a project needing labor can apply for a team to come for a year. The volunteers build stone walls, restore prairies, maintain trails, and construct viewing platforms and structures for disabled people. A special unit in Milwaukee works on energy conservation projects, installing weatherstripping and insulation.
The first follow-up survey of 800 alumni brought only 120 responses. But of those, 93 percent are now either working at higher than minimum wage or enrolled in school, and 94 percent rated it a positive experience, according to Topf Wells, executive director of the WCC.
``The most important thing they come away with is tremendously enhanced self-respect,'' says Mr. Wells. ``These are the kinds of work results that are immediately apparent. When you make a lake accessible to disabled people there's no doubt that that is good work. And they learn to work with one another on a team. They've tackled a tough job for 12 months and found they can do it well.''
Ron Grasshoff, the lean and driven crew leader who gets his men on site at 6 a.m. for four strenuous, 10-hour days, says, ``I see development of work habits.'' Mr. Grasshoff does more than teach skills. He teaches them about prescribed burning, fish management, and flood plains; giving these young people a different sense of the outdoors that some of them hunt and fish in.
``It's been an education for me,'' says crew member Brian O'Neill. ``A lot of us have learned a lot about conservation. Before I couldn't tell an elm from a walnut tree.''