Heart of Oregon offers youth work experience opportunities


Prineville students working to preserve aspen population in Ochoco National Forest

by: KEVIN SPERL  - Crew Leader Cheryl Sumerlin (right) works with team members Garret Dennis and Mike Burleigh to secure fencing around Aspen saplings located in the Spears Meadow area of the Ochocos.

Just west of Ochoco Summit, a team of Central Oregon Youth Conservation Corps teens were working to protect aspen saplings. Just east of the summit, the Waterman Complex fire was burning.

Separated by only a few miles, the two efforts stood in stark contrast, despite both attempting to protect forest resources.

Safely distanced from the intense smoke associated with the fire, five Prineville teens worked with team leader Cheryl Sumerlin, constructing wire cages for the young trees.

“We are caging aspen sprouts, hoping that they make it into the mid-story of the forest,” said Project Work Leader Dede Steele, explaining that the group was concentrating on a “clone” of aspen — an area of trees connected by an underground root system.

It’s a banner year for the corps and the Heart of Oregon, the sponsoring agency for the work crews.

Jacqui King, Heart of Oregon’s program assistant, said that her organization has hired more young people this year than last, due to an increase in grant money.

Over $88,000 was received, allowing the corps to dispatch 82 teens, aged 16 through 18, in 16 work crews, throughout the Ochoco and Deschutes National Forests and the Crooked River Grasslands.

Of that group, 20 teens from Crook County are staffing four work crews in the Ochocos from June 23 through August 14.

Out in Spears Meadow, crew members Tiffany Michel, Destiny Peterson and Kayla Hamilton were busy cutting cage wire while crewmates Garret Dennis and Mike Burleigh worked with Sumerlin to install them around the Aspen sprouts.

Peterson admitted to being on the crew simply because she needed the money, but added that she was seriously interested in working with the Forest Service as a potential career.

“Working with this crew allows me to understand what the Forest Service is all about,” she said.

According to Heart of Oregon Executive Director Laura Handy, each teen will earn about $2,500 for the eight-week commitment, adding that “these wages stimulate the local economies where the youth work and live.”

The teens are paid minimum wage and those aged 17 and 18 are eligible to complete an AmeriCorps scholarship for an additional $1,175. The teens are required to complete 300 hours of community service, 275 of which are satisfied by their work with COYCC. The final 25 hours are to be completed outside the program and in their local community.

According to Somerlin, the work program has an educational aspect as well.

“We are visited by guest speakers that talk about the why, the how and the impact of a variety of issues on the forest,” she said, explaining that the group had recently been building slash piles and learned about forest thinning principles, how to properly build a slash pile and area history.

Lynn Roby, Ochoco National Forest’s Partners Program manager, is impressed with the work being done by this year’s crews.

“The Central Oregon Youth Conservation Corps crews are doing a fantastic job out there and really making a difference on public lands,” she said. “After just two weeks on the job, they are doing an outstanding job and have totally gelled into a tight team.”

Roby said that many of the young people on the crews have never had jobs before, especially jobs in which they work physically hard all day, performing tasks that include building fences, pulling weeds, maintaining trails and piling slash for hazardous fuels reduction.

From the Forest Service perspective, the COYCC program is a benefit that helps the agency fulfill its mission.

“The long-standing partnership between Heart of Oregon Corps youth crews and USFS has accomplished land stewardship work in Central Oregon since 2002. “The Forest Service absolutely loves the crews we get from this program. Great kids, hard workers and they get very important stewardship and restoration work done on our Central Oregon public lands,” stated John Allen, forest supervisor of the Deschutes National Forest.

Burleigh admitted to joining the crew for a much simpler reason.

“I joined the corps because both of my parents worked in the Forest Service and I just want to know why they like it so much,” he said.