In Shawnee National Forest’s Youth Conservation Corps’ summer program, nine tribal teens learned about the importance of land stewardship and natural resource career opportunities.
"At first, the only reason I came was because I heard I was going to get paid,” said Grant Durman, a member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. “But when I got here and started experiencing the work and meeting other people, I realized it's more than about just getting paid. It's about making an experience for yourself."
The Youth Conservation Corps program traditionally employs teenagers from Southern Illinois. In an effort to strengthen ties with federally-recognized tribes, the forest expanded the program to include nine teens from the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.
“We hope that through these experiences the kids will forge a link to their history and heritage,” says Mary McCorvie, who coordinated the program. “It’s also helping establish a regional connection, something the three federally-recognized Shawnee Tribes have wanted for some time — a way for their children to link with the past.”
The intent of Youth Conservation Corps is to expose young people to the outdoors, while also building skills and experience in managing the land. This summer, they worked on many projects, including maintaining and constructing trails, improving trailheads, identifying and removing non-native invasive species, restoring wilderness campsites, installing portal signs, maintaining a pollinator garden, removing vegetation from a historic structure and helping archaeologists survey Millstone Bluff.
Many crew members expressed enthusiasm about returning to work in the program next summer. This year, students learned and developed skills they will use as future leaders. According to Mary McCorvie, the program leader, they will be able to mentor next year’s students: “These are the tribal leaders of tomorrow. It is vital that they understand not only the connection between the tribes and land, but also how to care for the land and all its resources. Southern Illinois has so much to offer in teaching them these lessons.”