Heart of Oregon Corps celebrates 20 years
As summer winds down, a number of Central Oregon youth are also completing natural resource projects as a member of a work crew.
This year, more than 300 youth will be part of a project through the Heart of Oregon Corps, a nonprofit organization invested in inspiring and empowering change in the lives of Central Oregon youth through jobs, education, and stewardship. Their program creates pathways out of poverty while stimulating regional economic growth.
HOC operates through a work-earn-learn model that cultivates job-skills training to build competitive job candidates and empower the future generation of workforce leaders.
This year also marks HOC's 20th anniversary of serving youth in Central Oregon. The HOC nonprofit has several programs under its umbrella. Most are seasonal crews, but they also operate a year-round program called AmeriCorps. The AmeriCorps program consists of crews of 7-8 young people, and they work mostly outdoors in natural resource projects. They learn to use a chainsaw, build a fence, and maintain hiking and biking trails. The crew members earn certificates and learn natural resource job skills. After successfully completing a three-month term, the crew members are eligible to enroll on a 9-month term. The members earn a stipend and a Segel Education award for college. Heart of Oregon also supports the young adults afterwards to begin a career path or secondary education.
In 2018, an office dedicated to AmeriCorps crews in Prineville was opened in close proximity to Ochoco Crossing. The crews operate year-round, although there was a short pause in March.
"We reopened in June, after a pause since March," explained Rebekah Altman, development and communications director for HOC. "During that time, we developed a COVID-19 protocol, and went back into operation with adjusted crews, smaller crew sizes and adjusted operations as far as transportation, physical distancing, daily health screens and all those kinds of components to ensure that we can serve our youth and our partners and still do our projects while hopefully safeguarding the safety of our young people, our staff and our community."
Tyler McRae, summer programs manager at HOC, reflected, "We put real effort into make sure that, if we were able to run the program, we could do so as safely as possible."
He adds that "partners in this program, as well as the crews and crew leaders, have done great work adhering to COVID-19 guidelines on top of their regular work duties."
Altman said that HOC has one crew operating out of the Prineville area, and occasionally their Bend crew works out of the Prineville area, depending on the current project. Heart of Oregon is currently actively recruiting for the AmeriCorps program, with a new cohort beginning the end of August. All interested applicants need to apply online at heartoforegon.org.
Central Oregon Youth Conservation Corps (COYCC) is a seasonal summer program that works in partnership with the United States Forest Service. Young people from across Central Oregon are hired for seven weeks of natural resources conservation work. The applications are usually due by the end of May, and the crews begin in July. The emphasis is on hiring local youth, and every summer COYCC employs approximately 90 youth during the season. This summer, there are three Prineville crews, all working in the Ochoco National Forest, two Madras crews and one Warm Springs crew on the Crooked River National Grassland.
When COYCC kicked off its summer season, operations looked substantially different as new physical distancing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were integrated into day-to-day practices. While HOC operates under independent COVID-19 protocol, efforts are mirrored by the United States Forest Service (USFS), which is currently implementing its own safety protocol under which risk assessments are conducted for all activities at the national forest level.
"The U.S. Forest Service is proud to host crews in Prineville and other Central Oregon locations," said Shane Jeffries, supervisor of the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland. "We've done a lot of planning and preparation to ensure young people are safe working with us this season. We're happy that we can continue to provide these great opportunities for them to connect to their public lands while working in their own communities."
Outdoor recreation on public lands has always been elemental to the Central Oregon lifestyle and has helped shape its communities. With this high level of engagement comes an equally strong need for good stewardship. As youth in the COYCC program partner with the USFS to work on projects such as hazardous fuels reduction, riparian habitat restoration, and trail maintenance, they are empowered as future leaders in stewardship, and their earnings are reinvested into their own communities.
The continued effort from COYCC and USFS to ensure that program operations move forward in the safest way possible reflects the dedication these partners have to our young people. In the 2008 financial crisis, Heart of Oregon provided critical job-skills training youth during a period of economic recovery. As Oregon continues to grapple with continued economic uncertainty in the coming months, there is little doubt of the importance of programs like COYCC and the positive impact such partnerships have on young people in the region.
Other programs that Heart of Oregon Corps supports includes YouthBuild, a Stewardship crew that operates out of Bend, and Camp Lead. YouthBuild members earn their GED, high school diploma, or college credits while learning job skills, and serving their community through building affordable housing. Members in the program divide their time between classroom, field (construction sites), and leadership development.
YouthBuild is stationed out of Sisters, and serves youth from Redmond, Madras, Warm Springs and Prineville.
Camp Lead is a leadership camp that employs and empowers youth with disabilities. Campers develop self-advocacy and social skills while gaining work experience and career exposure in the natural resources industry. This camp is made possible through a partnership with Oregon Vocational Rehabilitation Services (OVRS) and Oregon State Parks, with support from the US Forest Service and Oregon Department of Education.
Age groups vary according to the program, with some programs hiring as young as 16 years of age, and other programs have youth up to the age of 24.
To learn more about Heart of Oregon Corps programs, visit:
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