Grand Visions and the Creation of the Southeast Conservation Corps

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As an AmeriCorps member on a California Conservation Corps Backcountry Trail crew in 2002, Brenna Kelly repeatedly saw the transformational impact that the corps program made on others. After she finished her backcountry season, her love for conservation work and youth development lead her to places like Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Colorado. During the next 10 years she cultivated her experience through multiple seasons on U.S. Forest Service trail crews and numerous positions at corps programs.

Upon returning the south, Kelly took an AmeriCorps VISTA position, intent on beginning a program to offer the corps experience to youth around Chattanooga. That vision led to the creation of the Southeast Conservation Corps, which is designed to provide opportunities for young southern people “to gain a deeper relationship to natural spaces, stewardship and community service.” The result has been an increase to the wilderness accessibility in the area and a benefit to the young people involved in the program.

Workers on a SECC trail project
Workers on a SECC trail project Courtesy of SECC

As a crew leader, program coordinator, and forest service project partner for corps programs, Kelly sees young people from all backgrounds thrive within the corps model. They learn technical job skills, vital personal development skills, and they gain a deeper understanding of conservation and stewardship.

Kelly and the SECC currently have three project seasons scheduled. In the spring, they’ll operate a Trips for Kids program for East Lake Academy students. This program enrolls seventh and eighth grade students in a five-month earn-a-bike program. The Trips for Kids ride two Fridays a month and perform conservation service one Friday a month. According to Kelly, “the SECC’s goal is to engage youth in a program that requires fortitude, commitment, and teamwork.”

She also hopes to encourage recreation and foster a desire for conservation service through the joy of riding a mountain bike and completing local service projects on public land. Youth who successfully complete the program (usually in four to five months) earn their own mountain bike and helmet.

The summer and fall programs are more aggressive. To date, the SECC’s plans for summer include two Adult Conservation Camping Crews (18-25 year olds); one Youth Conservation Camping Crew (16-18 year olds) with the Forest Service throughout Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina; and a partnership with the Chickamauga Battlefield to operate a local Youth Conservation Crew.

Fall projects include two Adult Conservation Camping Crews with the Forest Service and one Adult Conservation Camping Crew for a regional municipality. Kelly expects a few additional projects currently in the works to firm up before the summer and fall.

Kelly says she doesn’t expect corps applicants to come to the program with specific experience: “We are willing to train and work with people to see them through the program successfully,” she says. “While there are some requirements, the position description really focuses on expectations.”

For the most part, applicants must commit to a certain length of service, which is generally 300 hours over an eight-week period.

The time on the trail for the adult crew involves work sessions of eight consecutive 10-hour working days. Kelly says work days generally begin around 6 am for those who are making breakfast, and everyone is up and ready for the work day by 7:30 a.m. The crew spends half an hour stretching and discussing safety issues, then hikes or drives to the project site. A work day includes two breaks with a half hour for lunch, in addition to hard work, tall tales, good and bad jokes, laughs, epic stories about weather, and ridiculous conversations that take place as a result of living and working with others in such close quarters.

A trail crew member staying busy
A trail crew member staying busy Mount Rainier National Park

“It’s this camaraderie that is the cherry on top,” Kelly says. “This intimate relationship between members makes the magic of a corps come to life—and it's what keeps people coming back or smiling long after the season is over.”

At the end of the day, the crew heads back to camp to wash up (a trail shower, not a fancy hot-water shower), change clothes, and relax. They also perform nightly camp chores like cooking dinner and managing bear hangs, among other tasks. And then, after the crew eats and cleans up, everyone relaxes around the fire, before heading off to bed to start again the next day. After an eight-day hitch, members have six days off to relax, recreate, and explore the beauty of the Southeast.

In addition to experience, education, friendships, and a $275 to $300 weekly stipend, participants receive an AmeriCorps Education Award upon completion, $1,200 toward paying school loans, or tuition for a Title IV accredited college. All group camp equipment and food while in the field is provided, as is personal protective equipment, uniform shirts, and transportation to and from project and camping sites.

By engaging kids who would not normally have the opportunity to engage in the bike program, as well as youths or adults in the conservation crew programs, Kelly hopes to creative a legacy of stewardship in the community.

“The Corps program is challenging,” Kelly says. “But come rain or shine, poison ivy or humidity, members work cohesively to maintain a high work ethic and a healthy crew community. Corps are ideal opportunities to grow professionally and personally. They’re not a summer-camp experience. Through high-quality projects, teamwork, and community living, the corps affords young people the chance to better themselves and their communities.”

Courtesy of SECC

Projects can include, but are not limited to, trail maintenance and construction, invasive species removal, habitat restoration, watershed restoration, disaster relief, and much more. In 2014, the SECC’s crews had 24 Youth and Young Adults successfully complete Conservation Crew Placements, and $14,100 worth of Education Awards were distributed to participants.

Some other raw numbers: 6,869 project hours were completed, 27,5119 feet of corridor were cleared, and 7,303 feet of trail were maintained. Additionally, SECC crew participants completed 2,987 feet of new trail construction, built 57 rock steps and four rock walls, installed five switchbacks and eight water drains, and built one equestrian stream crossing.

Kelly would like to have longer terms of service for corps members, but perhaps more importantly, they need more partnerships and continued support from land management agencies, non-profits, and municipalities in the area. 

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