Problem-Solving in a Pandemic: Connecting Youth to the Outdoors in the Time of COVID
Navigating a pandemic has forced all of us to approach work in a new way. If you can do your job online, tech makes it relatively easy, but in-person work is a puzzle: how do you offer quality connections and complete trail projects when physical distance is the number one way to support public health right now?
Navigating a pandemic has forced all of us to approach work in a new way. If you can do your job online, technology makes it relatively easy to meet deadlines and collaborate. But working together in person is much harder these days.
That meant trail maintenance became a puzzle: how could we complete projects and offer the quality of connection that people enjoy while working together outdoors when physical distance is the number one way to support public health right now?
One partnership that helped us offer those on-trail experiences is our work with the Youth Conservation Corps. program within the San Juan Islands Conservation District. The San Juan Islands Youth Conservation Corps (SJIYCC) teaches kids, ages 12-18, trail maintenance skills, promotes a connection to the land, and makes space for emotional and physical well-being.
Youth in the program develop a technical skill set, create memories and make friends on trail. WTA has supported SJIYCC, the San Juan Conservation District's youth trail work corps, for many years, first working with Arlen Bogaards, WTA's Northwest regional manager, and in the last few years by consulting Kaci Darsow, WTA's youth trail program coordinator.
WTA's youth trail maintenance program has facilitated outdoor experiences for thousands of young people, but this year — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — made the difficult decision to cancel our 2020 youth volunteer vacations. Thankfully, SJIYCC had some openings, and was able to offer jobs to some of our staff who were suddenly without work. Because of our partnership, three other WTA crew leaders joined the SJIYCC staff, and could share their expertise with the YCC crews.
The quality of connection you can experience on trail — both with each other and with place — is something we know is important to maintain, particularly in stressful times. The challenges this year presented highlighted the importance of working together to create those moments and opportunities, and they've shown how we rely on our partners just as much as they rely on us.
Kaci Darsow remains on WTA's staff but has been out to consult and support YCC crews in the field. They offer a critical eye when evaluating the trail projects, and long-lasting solutions to on-trail obstacles. Libby Valluzzi, assistant program manager with SJIYCC, described how that expertise has helped particularly this year, with COVID-19 making it difficult to meet in person.
"This year, we had our planning meetings with the park manager over Zoom, which made it tricky to be sure we were on the same page about what needed to be done and where. But Kaci really streamlined the process. They were able to evaluate the worksite in person, understand what the project was and tell me what tools a crew would need to get it done. It's so nice to know I can count on them. They know exactly what to do."
And it wasn't just Kaci offering expertise. Cole Hanych, Jacob Mandell and Marlie Somers were three crew leaders who had accepted crew leader positions for WTA's youth volunteer vacation program before it was cancelled. During a meeting, Libby mentioned to Clarissa Allen, WTA's youth trail program manager, that she still needed leaders for the season, and Clarissa immediately recommended Cole, Jacob and Marlie for the positions. Libby interviewed and hired all three. She says the expertise they came with made onboarding a breeze.
"It's unfortunate that their original jobs with WTA didn't work out, but I am so grateful that they were willing to consider coming here. It made it so much easier for us because they are all so well-qualified and knew so much about trail work. All we had to do was a short training to get them familiarized with SJIYCC’s guidelines, and they were ready to head out into the field."
The ability to rely on and support each other is always important; it's how WTA has worked for years. But this year in particular, the importance of having a community who supports each other is particularly evident. Libby said, "It's really inspiring — all the ways we're making things work right now. It's nice to back each other up and give all the support and structure we can."
A flexible approach
Sometimes that support is flexibility. The program emphasizes learning, making space for mental health and play, and Kaci enjoys the balance this attitude allows them to strike when they're leading these work parties.
"The flexibility of the program and the philosophy of constant learning fits really well with WTA's mindset of safety, fun, and getting work done. Over the course of the week it balances out to about 50% work, 50% nature education."
The benefits of this approach manifested on a recent work party. The crew was working on rehabbing an area after a large tree that had been cleared left debris and blocked a stream. They were building a puncheon (a type of bridge) learning rock work techniques that would help support the structure long-term.
As the crew was working, a volunteer from a nearby fish hatchery came by. The volunteer explained that an intake valve downstream from them that provided water (and therefore oxygen) to the fish in the hatchery wasn't working well because of the blockage from the debris. Kaci remembers the moment:
"It was perfect because earlier in the day we had talked about not throwing dirt downhill as we were clearing the area; we didn't want it to get into the stream (it would silt up and be bad for the fish). ... So the crew was able to use the skills they were learning that day to support the community, and still get that piece of nature education in."
Linked to the land
Libby said the partnership has not only provided on-trail expertise but is a great opportunity for mentorship. Kaci has gotten to know some kids well, because they come back year after year, and they've built rapport.
"Working with the same people consistently means you can get more advanced work done. It's nice because the kids are learning but it's also high value work I know the park appreciates," Kaci said. "It's good for us too, because we get to practice these more advanced skills right along with the kids. And there's such a good feeling of accomplishment at the end. When you're done you can bring your family and say: I built that puncheon or I built this trail."
The personal connection extends beyond what a crew can build in a day. It's embedded in the community of the islands. Kaci has seen this unfold firsthand while working with crews.
"I found out while working on that puncheon project that the decking (the part hikers walk on) for the puncheon were milled at one of the kids dad's mills on the island. And apparently the tree they removed was a huge deal on the island — all the kids were excited to come see it in person."
Pride in their work and connections to their backyards is what Libby is working to continue creating as she formalizes the program structure.
"The program has been really important on the islands because it bridges connections between the trail system and the local community. [Kaci] and all the other WTA people are a resource for our public lands, not just our program. Most of the trails on the islands were user-created and not professionally designed, so bringing in people who have that professional knowledge is beneficial for the entire community."
A physical and mental connection
Libby and SJIYCC Program Director Erin Licata are using the slower pace of this year to update aspects of the program, including building a framework for incorporating more mental health awareness. Libby cites Joanna Macy as her inspiration as she continues to think about how to create a strong program that promotes mental health, resiliency, and a connection to nature.
"We don't know how long the planet will last. I think about this a lot working with the kids. It's so hard being an adult in this world; I can't imagine being a young person. The inspiration I got from Macy is her philosophy of acknowledging grief for the world and cultivating a sense of optimism that is rooted in active hope. It's a perspective that respects our current situation and works within the limits that situation sets to achieve our goals."
Currently, mindfulness and meditation are integrated into each day but she wants to eventually get to the point where she can offer a mental health first aid course to crew leaders. For now, they stick to basics.
"If conflict or tension comes up, they're encouraged to slow down and just take a moment for themselves, maybe find a spot to sit and just connect with the land. Our crew leaders are good at being in tune with the group dynamic and can adjust as tensions or conflicts arise in the field."
Sometimes, being in tune with your crew is just about knowing when to take a break. Kaci remembers one hot day where they were brushing (removing excess foliage) from a trail.
"It was 85 degrees. We'd been brushing for hours on the Cascade Loop trail and the crew was tired, so we decided to go get in the lake. While we were there, we had a short lesson about limnology and the layers of heat in a lake. I like the philosophies of both programs: WTA's attitude of safety, fun and getting work done and the corps' emphasis on nature education and mental health work together so well."
As the season begins to wind down, Libby is already looking forward to next year. She believes it's going to be crucial as we continue navigating the pandemic and more people find a connection with nature.
"There are so many families and people in the community who want to get outside and there likely won't be school here for the next school year. Lots of people want to stay connected with the world and with each other in safe ways, and the trail work we're doing now will help that happen."