From all over south Cook County they came. Calumet Heights. Hyde Park. Morgan Park. Ashburn. Beverly.
They rose early on summer weekdays, arriving at their designated pick-up locations before 7:30 a.m. to be on site and ready to begin work by 8. Dressed in yellow hard hats and heavy duty work boots, they dug ditches, debarked and lifted logs, removed the invasive plants (buckthorn, catalpa and burdock). Their job was to make sure the Preserves remain healthy and safe for all to enjoy.
The 77 young people who made up the seven crews of this summer’s Youth Conservation Corps was the largest group ever, said Alice Brandon, a Forest Preserves of Cook County ecologist who oversees the six-week summer Corps program. “I heard youth say it was the best summer of their life.”
Youth Conservations Corps works in conjunction with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national organization dedicated to developing the next generation of conservation leaders. The Forest Preserve Foundation, as it has in past years, provided a grant that supported this summer’s Dan Ryan Woods crew. Teens 15-18 are paid $8.25 hour for a 35-hour week. Crew leaders are older and earn more.
For Myriam Ajayi, 23, the SCA co-leader of the Dan Ryan crew, the program offered a different way to spend her summer.
“I have worked outside before but not doing conservation work,” Myriam said. “So it [was] a great challenge for me, and it’s also something that I can take with me in the future.”
The Dan Ryan crew got a lot of trail work done, Alice noted. They made waterbars to keep water off the trails and prevent erosion. (Waterbars are made from logs that are set at an angle on a trail to divert water off to the side. The logs, in this case, came from ash trees that were cut down because of emerald ash borer damage.)
“Another thing we did was fix check steps and put in some new ones for the ones that rotted away,” Myriam said. (Check steps are a rock or timber step placed in or across the trail tread to act as a low dam (to slow water flowing down a trail) and as a step for trail users.
One of Myriam’s crew members was Deric Carmickle, 17. Reflecting on his experience, he said the entire crew got a lot done. “I know I contributed to that.”
On the final day of the program, when all 77 crew members gathered at Thatcher Woods to collect their certificates and take group photos, Deric was feeling a little wistful. “It’s kind of sad,” he said. “But I’m really glad I got this job. I couldn’t ask for a better one, especially for the summer.”