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Clearing a new path


Youth crews descend on Mary S. Young to clear out ivy, blackberry plants

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Wilderness International crew member Erick Robles packs recently pulled invasive weeds into a wheelbarrow at Mary S. Young State Park. The sky was clear and the sun was beaming on a crisp morning at Mary S. Young State Park Saturday, perfect weather for running, boating, biking, maybe even a trip to the dog park afterward.

Or — as was the case for a sizable number of volunteers on this particular Saturday — five hours of dedicated ivy pulling.

Youth work crews from the nonprofit Wilderness International Youth Conservation Corps and the Clackamas Juvenile Department’s Project Payback converged on an area adjacent to the park’s off-leash dog park from Wednesday to Saturday last week, clearing out invasive ivy and blackberry plants and placing bark chips over the newly cleared space to keep future weeds from growing.

It was slow, monotonous work — hacking and pulling and dragging piles of weeds off to a Dumpster placed just off the adjoining road — but no one was complaining. These particular youth crews were comprised of at-risk youth from Clackamas County’s juvenile system, and though perhaps it wasn’t what they originally had in mind for spring break, the benefits of the work were evident in the cleared space laid in front of them.

“We’re helping the animals — some different kinds of animals like birds, the dogs so they can come around and play,” said Erick Robles, a resident of Oregon City. “And just pulling the weeds because it’s killing the trees, as you can see. They’re almost all dead, and we’re just pulling them out so they can grow again.”

Wilderness International’s executive director, Russ Hall, wasn’t working close enough to hear Robles talk about the work, but if he had been he would have smiled. Six years ago, Hall resigned from his job as a sales engineer at Pitney Bowes to chase his dream of starting a conservation organization. Wilderness International was founded shortly thereafter, and Hall saw a golden opportunity when he built a relationship with the Clackamas County Juvenile Department.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Romario Ramirez prepares to haul his wheelbarrow to a nearby Dumpster, where the weeds were discarded.

“I saw that we had a great opportunity to serve these kids and kind of train the next generation to take care of the environment,” Hall said. “And they were a very ready and able work force for us.”

Since its founding, Wilderness International has grown into a structured 10-week program that is meant to educate youth on environmental conservation while also teaching valuable work and interpersonal skills. Participants take classes for credit on employment responsibilities and job hunting at Clackamas Community College, and can also earn community service hours or money to pay restitution fees.

As important as those incentives are, Hall has also seen participants become genuinely interested in the environment and the simple things they can do to bolster its well-being.

“Part of our 10-week curriculum is to teach them some conservation principles, like native plant identification,” Hall said. “We try to give them an idea of why we do this. Why we are restoring a native habitat, and the benefits of that to our environment, to us as a community. They typically don’t know a ton about it, and then we try to educate them more.”

Much of that education process falls into the hands of people like Bethany Wray, the education program director at Wilderness International. Wray spends three to four days of each week throughout the year leading similar conservation groups at parks across the county, and thus found herself at Mary S. Young on Saturday leading the one-week spring break program.

Wray has always been passionate about environmental work, but is equally devoted to the educational realm of the field, and thus sees this as something of a holistic blend between the two.

“Being able to combine it to help youth succeed in their personal lives and in their potential work lives, that’s what drew me to it,” Wray said. “It connects to physical work, the environment, giving the kids confidence, all that stuff.”

It can also provide important perspective for youth who have only seen one side of the fence, so to speak. Wray remembered a recent project that had the crew members building fences and viewing platforms at a park. Some were later vandalized, and the youth were left to clean up the mess on structures they’d only just built.

“They have a better understanding of how their actions affect the community,” Wray said. “They’re not going to go vandalize something now that they know what it feels like.”

Saturday’s work was akin to cleaning up nature’s version of vandalism. It could be backbreaking and boring, but also rewarding in its own way.

“After lunch, sometimes we don’t want to start back up,” said Tommy Round, another youth crew member. (But) as you see the progress, it makes you appreciate what you’ve been doing.”

Robles, for his part, certainly derived some extra motivation from the $50 per day stipend. But he also appreciated the social element of the process, and the idea of helping the environment.

“I like doing this,” Robles said. “I don’t mind at all — sometimes at home there’s nothing to do.

“I’m doing this because I want to be doing this.”

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Brothers Romario and Roadman Ramirez pull invasive plants from a targeted area at Mary S. Young State Park.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Roadman Ramirez pushes a wheelbarrow filled with weeds toward a Dumpster.