KANE — All the teens and young adults who met Wednesday in Kinzua Bridge Visitors Center had at least one thing in common: They love the natural world.
Hailing from St. Marys and the surrounding region, they are all participants in the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps, a program designed to develop workforce skills and an interest in conservation. To that end, the corps members offer physical labor to make improvements in Pennsylvania’s state parks.
Participants in a local crew had a chance Wednesday morning to meet John Norbeck, deputy secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, when he held an informal meeting with them Wednesday morning in one of the center’s classrooms.
While those seasoned in the working world shared their career journeys and offered advice to the corps participants, the young workers were invited to share their own stories, too. They went around the room to talk about why they joined the program and what they hope to do with their futures.
“We want to hear what you’re excited about,” Mike Piaskowski, DCNR manager of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps, told them.
Norbeck also talked about how the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps program began about four years ago.
He explained that when Gov. Tom Wolf was first elected, “He challenged cabinet members to look at youth employment.”
This meant that DCNR secretary Cindy Dunn and her staff were tasked with finding a way the department could develop youth employment and youth engagement in Pennsylvania. What they came up with was revising a program similar to one the state Department of Labor & Industry had a few years before: the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps program. That program ended in 2009 due to the recession.
While the Department of Labor & Industry has not able to revive the program, the department has been very supportive of the DCNR’s efforts to take it on. The DCNR has paired with the Student Conservation Association in the conservation program, too.
There are two types of participants: 15- to 18-year-olds participate in a six-week program, and 18- to 25-year-olds participate in a 10-month program. There are now nine adult crews and 17 youth crews in the state.
“It’s really grown,” said Norbeck.
Through their time in the program, participants come out with work experience, a strong work ethic and soft skills that can be used in future jobs.
“The folks who come out of this program come out really ready to work,” he said.
Another goal of the program is to encourage “the next generation of conservation leaders,” said Piaskowski, who added that no matter what the program participants end up doing as a career, “We hope you still carry a love of conservancy in your heart.”
Many of the corps members expressed a desire to find careers where they can continue to work in nature, which makes experience working at state parks a good fit.
“Pennsylvania has the best state park system in the nation,” said Norbeck, noting there are 121 parks in the system.
Pennsylvania is only one of four states that has free entry into its state parks, he later said.
The reason for that, Norbeck said, is, “These state parks belong to the citizens of Pennsylvania.”
Mitch Stickle, manager of the Kinzua Bridge State Park Complex, brought photographs of some of the work corps members have done locally.
One of the big projects that has been in the works for about three years is a walking trail at Kinzua Bridge, where corps members will continue this year building stone steps. Next week, they will be working at Bendigo State Park.
Norbeck said participants learn skills including campsites maintenance, stone work, carpentry, using tools and light trade work.
After the discussion, Norbeck told The Era that he disagrees with the assertion that the younger generation does not have a good work ethic.
In fact, the participants in the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps have shown themselves to be hard workers who show up on time.
“It’s all about leadership,” said Norbeck, explaining that it is up to adults to guide young adults. “It’s our job to pass on the work ethic.”