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Youths spend summer helping Conservation Department

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

SIKESTON -- Five Sikeston youths are building their work ethic and college fund while lending a hand to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The goal of the Southeast Youth Conservation Corps is to put five youth conservation corps crews to work on conservation projects in Southeast Missouri during an eight-week period.

"It's kind of a pilot project," said Phil Helfrich, media and outreach specialist for the MDC's southeast region. "This is the third year for our program and our first year for having a full-time crew for Scott County."

To make the program feasible, the Department of Conservation partners with youth service organizations who provide salaries.

"This year it's a place called Alternative Opportunities and next year it will be Mears Goodwill," Helfrich said. "These organizations get federal job training money and we provide a crew leader, conservation projects, environmental education, CPR training, vans, tools, and kind of personal development things."

Iyauna Bell of Hayti was selected by MDC officials as the crew leader for the Scott County program, according to Helfrich.

Bell explained she previously participated in the Natural Resource Career Camp program which was run by Chris Kennedy. "He recruited me from that program," Bell said. Kennedy, along with Helfrich, coordinates the program for MDC.

Youth participants must be economically disadvantaged, meeting income guidelines set by most Community Action agencies.

Participants must also be "at-risk" of dropping out of school or being referred to social or juvenile justice agencies. To remain in the program, participants must comply with the program's attendance and behavior policies.

"I have six kids, ages 16-18," Bell said. "I have one from Scott City and the rest are from Sikeston."

New crew members are paid minimum wage but those who return in subsequent years are eligible for raises.

"They get a scholarship, if they complete 300 hours, toward going to college," Bell added. The $1,000 education award, set aside in their name, can also be used for vocational school tuition. The education awards are cumulative for those who participate in the youth corps more than one year.

Conservation projects are selected to provide youth with a safe, meaningful work experience, according to Helfrich. By the end of the eight-week program, participants ideally have worked on a variety of projects.

Bell and her crew started June 5 working at the Tywappity Community Lake located near Chaffee off Route M in Scott County.

"It's a conservation area where you can go out and fish and walk the trail," she said. "We cleaned the walking trail. We trimmed limbs on the trail, raked leaves, painted benches, painted bridges, picked up trash. ... We were at Tywappity for awhile -- the trail is really long."

The crew then worked at the Duck Creek Conservation Area near Puxico.

"We removed an old research project -- it had been there for 30 years," Bell said. "We removed a whole bunch of chickenwire and posts and cut down a lot of trees."

The old post was removed so they could put in a walking trail there, she explained.

Friday the crew was at Conservation Area 76 near Brazeau where the crew is building a walking trail.

"I just think it's fun and exciting," said Tyrone Bateman, 16, of Sikeston. "I heard about this program through another program, Alternative Opportunities. ... They told us we would be working outside doing conservation things."

Bateman offered as an example his work putting together water willow bundles, a job in which the vegetation is taken from one lake and transported to another for fish.

"I think it's a really, really good opportunity for the kids," Bell said. "Especially in Sikeston -- they don't have many jobs they can work and get experience. It will be good on their resume to have worked for the Department of Conservation."

Bell said she has been pleased by the performance of her crew.

"The kids are doing a really good job," she said. "A lot of the people are impressed by a lot of the things they've done."

Both Bell and Bateman said they are interested in participating in the program again next summer.

"I'm looking forward to it," Bell said.