Summer Student Conservation workers get job done

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Every summer, thousands of low-income youths across the nation work on public lands on Student Conservation Association crews. They build and clear trails, clean garbage dumps, plant and tend trees and remove invasive growth.

This summer, one local crew installed rain containers while working on Project 15206 and the East End Rain Container Initiative, a joint effort of state Sen. Jim Ferlo, the Penn State Center and Pittsburgh Community Services to reduce storm runoff in the Negley Run and Heth’s Run watersheds.

The watershed project has $500,000 in Allegheny County grants and grant requests pending while designs are completed for 11 sites, said Deno DeCiantis, director of the Penn State Center.

After a week of training, students on the East End project began ticking off the list of householders who had requested rain containers, installing eight to 12 a day. They have installed 171 so far, with a goal of 200. When their summer work ends, another 200 will be installed by staff Mr. Ferlo hired for the project and one of the SCA students, said Joe Kramer, Mr. Ferlo’s economic development director.

“SCA has been an awesome partner,” he said. “We wouldn’t have been able to get all this done without them.”

The Student Conservation Association is one of several contractors the city works with in assigning youths to summer jobs. The city’s youth employment program hired about 600 students. They are chosen by lottery and paid minimum wage.

One of the city’s youth jobs supporters for years, the Pittsburgh Foundation, granted $75,000 this year and specified Project 15206, said Jane Downing, the foundation’s senior program officer for community and economic development. “We’re interested on the whole in green infrastructure, so when Ferlo convened 15206, it seemed like a good match and something different for [the students] to do,” she said.

Nancy Schaefer, program manager for the local student workers, said she has six crews of 70 participants this year. The students also work on projects other sources fund. The Heinz Endowments is supporting 24 of them working on projects in Hazelwood with a $119,000 grant.

This is the third year SCA has conducted the program in Hazelwood. This summer, in addition to some cleanup and garden work, the students’ focus is on trail work, a “professional expertise we’re pretty well known for,” Ms. Schaefer said. The crew is working on building a trail off Alluvian Street near the eastern border of the neighborhood.

“When I look at a program like this, it reminds me that too often when we look at teens and kids in this age category, they’re seen through the lens of a deficit and what isn’t going right,” said Grant Oliphant, president of Heinz Endowments. “These kids are demonstrating what an asset they can be and are for their communities, and I think it’s just wonderful to see them contributing in the way that they are, being part of the community in the way that they are, and leaving it better than they found it.”

The organization is a national nonprofit based on the model of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s. It reached a milestone this summer of 75,000 participants since it was established in 1957 as a way to interest young people in land stewardship. It helps those who want to advance from the student group to pursue careers in conservation work.

“We’re partnered up with all the federal land management agencies,” said Ms. Schaefer, who knows of 43 who have gone into such careers.

She said the organization expects students to learn work discipline, from getting up early enough to pack lunch and catch a bus to reporting for daily assignments before 9 a.m. Monday through Friday. The organization provides bus passes but makes no allowances for being late.

Ms. Schaefer said that early on, six students who were barely on time were sent home, “and they have been on time since.”

Ms. Schaefer said some partners are more receptive to the students than others. One, Dick Wilford, the foreman at Frick Park, “believes in their ability to produce good results and puts high standards on them,” she said.

“From the get-go, however many years it’s been, I wanted to treat them like real crew,” Mr. Wilford said. “I want to give them a project where they can use skills they’ve been trained to use. It gives them more respect for themselves and each other if they do challenging things.”

The Frick Park crew has moved 38 tons of material, mostly limestone for trails, and built a landscaping wall, he said.

“Every year, I don’t think the crew from the last year can be beat, but this crew did what was supposed to be a two-year project in five weeks,” he said. “I’m going to have to brainstorm for a project for next year.”

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.

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