|How I Found Peace Through Mile High Youth Corps
By John Biggs
I started working for Mile High Youth Corps in 2011 as a corpsmember on a trail crew. I’d never done anything like it before. I was in the middle of a strange time in my life, unemployed and frustrated with life and the universe in general, which I think is symptomatic of being a young man and generally living in a world that isn’t fully capable or willing to accommodate your instincts and urges. Mile High changed all that, though. Through Mile High, I learned the value of a hard day’s work. More importantly, I found peace.
It turns out that living in the woods and digging in the dirt day in and day out is cathartic in a way I’d never experienced. Scraping away sediment layer by layer, creating something that, at the end of the day, you can look back on and claim as the fruit of your labor... there’s just nothing else like it. That, and being constantly surrounded with people who also find value in service, was the best thing that had happened to me in years.
I was an average student for my entire life. Talented, but uninterested and unmotivated. That pattern continued through high school and into college, where eventually I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t about to spend money taking classes that I wasn’t interested in, and frankly wasn’t attending on a regular basis anyway. Inevitably I left school, convinced that I could make it in the private sector.
I was convinced that I was going to be fine, and that my natural talent would allow me to shine in whatever field I washed up in. I just could not have been more wrong. It turns out that I’d never learned how to really work. So I drifted around for a year or two in a dead-end job, wasting time. Eventually I was fired, which turned out to be the best thing for me, because it was at that point that I washed up at Mile High Youth Corps.
So for my first year with Mile High, I dug in the dirt, built fencing, and cut trail. I caught a field promotion when our mentor had to resign. It was the first time in my life that I’d actually been rewarded for hard work, and I didn’t fully know what to make of it. It was also the first time in my life that I’d ever been entrusted, in a professional capacity, with even a modicum of authority, and I absolutely didn’t know what to do with it. But it was a learning process, and I think that’s what’s valuable about organizations like Mile High Youth Corps. They provide an environment where it’s possible to explore not only the career options that exist within the greater umbrella of conservation and forestry, but also, if you’re motivated, the complexities of authority and leadership, in an environment that prevents you from making too much of a mess of it. And that’s something for which I am grateful.
Since then, I’ve advanced in the organization. I spent my last year running a chainsaw, working fire mitigation, fuels reduction, cutting space around structures, improving habitat, and removing invasive species. This year, I’ve been offered a position as an “alumni mentor,” a corpsmember that takes on the duties of a staff member. In this capacity, I’ve worked on hiring and outreach, I’ve built partnerships with a couple of organizations, and I’ve gotten to see what the back end of the nonprofit world looks like. Of course, I was happy to find myself back out in the field this summer, working in the sunshine.
The lessons I’ve learned at Mile High Youth Corps are the type that you don’t forget, those that stick with you and prove useful throughout a life.
Photo: John Biggs says that youth corps is the best thing that’s happened to him in years.
Handcycle Trail Offers Access to All
The Western Colorado Conservation Corps (WCCC) has embarked on a new project building what many of us take for granted every time we take our bikes out for a spin. The Bureau of Land Management and Gunnison Trails hired the WCCC’s veteran crew to expand the width of an existing single track trail so that disabled cyclists using handcycles will be able to enjoy the trail as well. The trail is located at Hartman Rocks in Gunnison.
According to Logan Donahue, a Veteran Conservation Corpsmember, “It’s going to be wide enough for handcycles, which is really nice because it gives the handicap community a chance to enjoy the activities that many of us in Colorado enjoy.”
Recently the crew tested out the adaptive bikes that can be ridden on the new trail, which is accessible to all levels of handcyclists. Disabled veterans are encouraged to use the new trail as well. Sean Gassaway, another Veteran Conservation Corps member, says, “It’s really satisfying to me to give back to somebody who has given a part of their body for the country.”
View the feature story that appeared on KJCT8.com.
Photo: WCCC’s veteran crew constructed a handcycle trail to accommodate disabled cyclists.
Generations of Service: From Father, Son, to Grandson
The desire to work in service to one’s country seems to run in the family for some. For Joe Duda, a CYCA board member, an early passion for forestry may have been influenced by his father’s service with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. Today, Joe is deputy state forester for the Colorado State Forest Service at Colorado State University, and even though his father’s stint in forestry only lasted a short while, a shared interest in natural resources continues to bind father and son together. And that legacy continues to affect another generation of the Duda family.
Joe graduated from college with a forestry degree, and at the time, he says, jobs were hard to come by. Taking a job as a timber faller in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1976, he was soon hired as a forester with a private company. Joe asked his new boss why, out of the tall stack of job applications he had received, he decided to hire him. The boss’ response was, “Anyone who is willing to take a job with a chainsaw really wants to work in forestry.”
And Joe adds, “That clearly demonstrated to me that giving young people an opportunity to demonstrate their passion and gain experience can be the dividing point between getting a job and not getting a job.” Those words ultimately drove Joe’s own motivation to “pay it forward” by helping youth get jobs in land conservation. Today, as an ex-officio member of the CYCA board of directors, Joe draws inspiration from the younger generation. “Every day I see the same dedication and passion in today’s youth.”
With a few decades of experience under his belt, Joe says his chosen career path offers continual opportunity to help shape young people’s lives. At the university he sees a multitude of education-oriented and volunteer programs with the forest service. “Anything we can do to provide opportunities for youth to gain experience and exposure to natural resources helps us as society, and helps youth get gainful employment,” he says.
This exposure to natural resources is especially important these days, says Joe, because, “Since I left college we’ve seen some reduction in people going into this field.” The field needs them – and youth corps can be a vital link. “Youth corps helps refine them, gives them an idea of what they would like to do for a lifelong career. It helps them decide what they’re passionate about doing.”
Joe’s father – Edward Anthony Duda, now 96 years old – was raised in Hamtramck, a city surrounded by Detroit, in a family of 11 children during America’s most economically depressed times. Like many families, the Dudas were experiencing tight financial times, making Edward eligible to join the CCC. His first year, he was stationed across the Mackinac Straits near where today’s Mackinac Bridge is located in the Upper Peninsula. But after a few months it was discovered that Edward was not yet 18 – too young to serve in the CCC – and he was sent home. He returned the following year and was stationed near Sidnaw, where he was tasked with forest thinning, to help reduce the risk of fire, and tree planting.
Recently, Joe went home to Michigan and had the chance to ask his dad about his time in the CCC. His dad was full of stories. He recalled that, because he and his siblings had to cut wood and split old railroad ties to keep the house warm during winter, he was experienced with saws and axes. When he arrived at the CCC, he says, “The first thing the sergeant asked was, ‘Who’s used an axe before?’ Several of the men eagerly raised their hands. But those of us who were experienced were smart enough to keep our hands down.” Sure enough, by the end of that first day, half a dozen young men arrived at the infirmary with axe cuts on their legs and feet. “They didn’t have the experience,” Joe’s dad says.
Working with the CCC was a way Edward could provide economic relief for his family – every CCC Boy was required to send $25 of his $30 monthly wages home – and to do this he put up with hard physical work in hot, bug-ridden conditions. But the experience offered camaraderie, friendship – and regular meals.
“They were a poor family, although they did not view themselves that way. They were a good family with a strong work ethic, which provided richness in their lives. This was a shaping experience,” Joe says. “When you’re used to not having much, it doesn’t take much to appreciate the opportunity it gives you.”
Joe brings that same sense of appreciation to his own work every day, harkening back to the days of the CCC whose volunteers planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, constructed more than 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks, updated forest fire fighting methods, and built a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas. And every day he sees the fruits of the modern day youth corps’ efforts across Colorado, shaping not only young people’s lives, but the future of Colorado’s natural resources.
“Youth corps has been a significant part of the implementation of forest restoration projects across Colorado. Through coordination and dedication of youth and local corps leaders, we see good work being done across the state.”
In keeping with the Duda family tradition, Joe has passed the passion for forestry down to his youngest son, who also works as a forester. Like father, like son!
Photo 1: Joe Duda continues his passion for conservation through his work as a forester and a CYCA board member.
Photo 2: Joe Duda’s father, Edward Anthony Duda, served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Shown here earlier this year at the age of 96.
Photo 3: A Civilian Conservation Corps crew in Michigan in the 1930s.
Call for Proposals: $500,000 Available from GOCO for Youth Corps Projects
State Representative Garcia Visits MHYC's "Steel City" Crew in Pueblo
Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and CYCA have announced that a Request for Proposals is available for $500,000 in GOCO/Lottery funds for awards to local government and open space organizations to hire youth conservation corps. The RFP can be found at www.CYCA.org. The application deadline is Sept. 27, 2013. Successful projects will be announced in December 2013 and crews will complete the proposed work in 2014.
State Representative Leroy Garcia of Pueblo visited the Mile High Youth Corps’ Steel City Crew on July 27. Rep. Garcia spent some time observing the crew clearing and chipping trees and brush from a large area on the Arkansas River Trail, which had become so overgrown and hazardous that the picnic shelter was no longer used and the river was no longer visible. The crew was thrilled that Rep. Garcia was able to join them for lunch, speak about his path to public service and answer the crew’s questions about various issues. Check out Rep. Garcia’s Facebook page for more photos, and read the article in the Pueblo Chieftain.
Photo: State Rep. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo visits the Mile High Youth Corps’ Steel City crew on the Arkansas River Trail.
Check It Out!
Big thanks to Great Outdoors Colorado for promoting youth corps on its homepage.
CYCA Welcomes Blaine and Peter!
Blaine McFeeley, Development Associate
Blaine has a strong background in the political and campaign world, with an interest in environmental and conservation issues. He has worked on numerous political campaigns including the Colorado State Senate and President Obama’s presidential campaign. He has also held positions in the legislative office of Congressman Walt Minnick in Washington, D.C. and Senator Andy Kerr in Colorado. Blaine has a great deal of experience traveling and living abroad. Recently, he worked at an eco-friendly tour company in Guatemala giving biking and backpacking tours of various volcanoes. In his spare time, Blaine trains for and runs marathons, enjoys Colorado’s outdoors, and spends time with his fiancé, Suzy – they plan to be married at the end of August.
Peter Lagorio, Good Works for Youth VISTA Member
Peter transferred to serve as a CYCA Good Works for Youth VISTA Member after serving for nine months with Veterans Green Jobs, where he was awarded the Governor’s Service Award for Outstanding AmeriCorps VISTA 2013. Peter was influenced to join AmeriCorps after some positive service experiences he had while in college in Florida, as well as service trips to Anchorage, Alaska and Peru. Originally from the Boston area, Peter received his bachelor’s degree from Eckerd College in Environmental Studies in 2010. After graduating, he worked as a lobsterman on several commercial fishing vessels out of Boston and the North Shore. He is interested in pursuing a career in the natural resources field. Since moving to Denver, Peter has been active in service projects with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and is currently training to be a volunteer crew leader. His hobbies include skiing, boxing, yoga and seeing live music.
Career Path Corner: CYCA Seeks Interns for the BLM
CYCA is currently seeking two Bureau of Land Management interns. Positions offer a stipend or pay at $10-$13/hr. For detailed information on the positions, visit CYCA’s Careers page.