Promoting corps values youth and community

Matt Jennings
Matt Jennings

For nearly 40 years, Mesa County Partners has helped area youth develop positive self-images and a sense of belonging as well as accept responsibility for their actions.

Those familiar with the organization know how important it is for young people to have guidance and mentoring through the sometimes tumultuous stages of childhood. Partners accomplishes this through different programs, each designed to target specific challenges of growing up.

Our one-to-one mentoring program connects adult partners with youth partners to establish positive role modeling for young people. Our restitution and community service program helps young people who’ve been ordered by courts to complete community service to repay monetary damages to crime victims. And then there’s the Western Colorado Conservation Corps (WCCC).

Many people ask me about the WCCC and how it fits into the Partners mission. The simple answer: the WCCC helps kids. But how? As a particularly wise former executive director of Partners once told me: “The conservation corps is the graduate school of Partners.” Unemployment among youth is notoriously higher than the general population and poses potentially devastating effects on future employability. The WCCC exists to provide young people a helping nudge into becoming successful, tax-paying adults.

The WCCC recruits teen-agers and young adults ages 16 to 25. We’re looking for people eager to serve their community who want to work and camp in some of the most beautiful areas in America.

Although the competitive selection process is based on merit, the program constitutes a first employment experience for many participants. The program offers an opportunity to go through a screening and interviewing process and helps young people develop workplace skills. 

WCCC participants typically earn $340 a week (before taxes), and most are eligible to earn AmeriCorps education awards. For example, a corpsmember who completes 300 hours of service can earn an additional $1,115 education award to be used at most institutions of higher education — including Colorado Mesa University and Western Colorado Community College.

Corpsmembers go through rigorous training. All crews receive a week of paid orientation, trail training, fence building training and team building. Training is designed to help participants achieve success during their season with the WCCC. Training also is designed to develop workplace skills and encourage punctuality, communication and other soft skills that will help them succeed in the workforce.

Most corpsmembers also get the opportunity to receive advanced training to be part of our elite chain saw and invasive species teams. This includes an additional week-long advanced course in chainsaw safety, use and maintenance as well as classes in professional herbicide applications. These coveted positions have crews working in some of the most breathtaking riparian landscapes in Western Colorado as well as in the high country working on fire fuels reduction projects.

The beauty of the WCCC, like other Partners programs, is twofold. Our primary objective is to help young people, of course. But with Partners programs, there’s also value generated for the community. The reason we build recreational trails, build fences and treat invasive species is that we collaborate with public land managers. The WCCC operates in Mesa County as well as Delta, Gunnison and Montrose counties, all of which are comprised of about 75 percent public lands.

It’s incredibly rewarding to bring young people to the Colorado National Monument or Grand Mesa National Forest for the first time. Even corpsmembers who’ve lived in Grand Junction their entire lives are regularly surprised to discover they have access to such amazing places and take a great deal of pride and ownership in their labor. These projects are identified and supervised by land managers specifically with the WCCC in mind.

The WCCC operates on a fee-for-service basis, charging land managers for their projects. This funds the majority of WCCC costs while providing service on public lands that wouldn’t otherwise be feasible.

In my six years with the WCCC, I’ve seen nearly 1,000 corpsmembers reach out and get their careers started. The next time you’re out for a run on the Lunch Loops, hiking Liberty Cap, rafting down Ruby Canyon or fishing at Mesa Lakes, be sure to thank a corpsmember for their service to the community.

If you’d like to help the cause, we’re looking for good candidates for our fall crews. Many of the corpsmembers also need help finding good boots and camping gear. We’re also looking for a quality SUV for getting crews to their projects.