By Will Blanchard and Andy Ostmeyer
LIBERAL, Mo. —
With intense sunlight streaming down, and the heat index toying with triple digits, Prairie State Park was no picnic Tuesday.
But there was little complaining from the half-dozen sweaty young people painting and landscaping at the nearly 4,000-acre park north of Joplin.
“This is one of the only jobs you can find where you get to work outside and be with the environment,” said Ben Brand on his first day at Prairie State Park. “This is where you can really be out there with nature and be more connected to nature, and know you are helping nature on a deeper level than you could somewhere else.”
Click here for video of area youths working at Prairie State Park.
Brand spent his morning landscaping around the visitors center with plants native to the tallgrass prairie.
Caleb Murphy also was helping spruce up the park this week.
“I needed a job, and I like being outside, so it seemed like a no-brainer,” he said.
Across Missouri, 1,300 young people, ages 17 to 24, have been put to work at Missouri’s state parks and historic sites as part of the State Park Youth Corps, according to Judd Slivka, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which manages the state parks.
The program, which pays minimum wage for 240 hours — about six weeks of work — is funded by $2.1 million in federal stimulus money and $400,000 in state money, said John Fougere, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Economic Development.
Like the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, the program’s purpose is twofold: to improve parks while providing jobs.
“Young people have a tough time finding a job in a tough economy,” Fougere said. “In Joplin, there are 88 young people signed up for the program.”
At a time when state funding for parks has been cut, park superintendents are thrilled with the program.
“This is a brand-new program, State Park Youth Corps,” said Brian Miller, natural resource steward at Prairie State Park. “We’re painting some of our buildings. We also have a wildflower garden we’re putting in right now, to help visitors understand some of the different wildflowers we have. We have one person helping out in our visitor center. We have a few guys that are starting to work on a trail project to install some (crossings) on a few of the streams we have.
“We are supposed to get a total of 22 (Youth Corps workers) through the summer. We are increasing our staff here for the summer four- or fivefold.”
Statewide, Youth Corps members are doing everything from building mountain bike trails to working at archaeological digs, serving as park interpreters and, of course, maintenance.
Dusty Reid, superintendent at Roaring River State Park near Cassville, said he expects to have 24 Youth Corps workers through the summer at the park.
Some of the workers already have been taken to Big Sugar Creek State Park near Pineville for trail building, while others have been assigned to maintenance projects at Roaring River.
“We have a roofing crew, and we are getting caught up on some roofing projects,” Reid said. “This program is just fantastic. We are getting caught up on years of maintenance backlog.”
Reid said there was a 50 percent decrease in the DNR’s budget for hiring seasonal crews because of state budget cuts.
“This is filling those holes very well,” he said.
Doug Rusk is superintendent at Stockton State Park. He also oversees the Nathan Boone Homestead State Historic Site near Ash Grove and the Harry S. Truman Birthplace State Historic Site at Lamar, as well as Prairie State Park.
“A lot of it is painting,” he said when asked about the work of his crews. “We are going to be painting several buildings here at Stockton, roofing shower houses, kiosks.
“I got a couple of trail workers, and we are going to clean some trails. This will really give us a shot in the arm.”
‘A lot of variety’
“It’s something outdoors, and with this job there’s something different to do all the time. A lot of variety, so you never really get too bored, which is nice. You’re not doing the same repetitive thing eight hours a day.”
— Bill Hohulin, State Park Youth Corps member, working at Prairie State Park