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Imagine being a high school student and spending seven weeks in the forest with complete strangers. That’s exactly what seven students did as part of their summer with the North Carolina Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) out in Pisgah National Forest.

The students worked on maintaining trails and learned to build rolling dips and rock armor drains to control water flow and prevent trail erosion. In addition to conservation work (for which the students were paid), the summer experience also served as youth development.

“I think we do a really good job of developing a good work ethic. This is the first job experience for many of our students,” said crew leader Kevin Conley. “Instilling a good work ethic outside of the academic environment I think is really important, as well as just outdoor skills and leadership skills.”

The program, funded in part by the Duke Energy Foundation, wrapped last week on August 3. Learn more about the experience from crew leaders and students in the photo story below:

“They’re going to look back on it and say, ‘That was awesome. I’m a better person for achieving that,'” said crew leader Kevin Conley (pictured front right) of the seven-week experience. Kevin Conley/NC Youth Conservation Corps
armor drain
“Basically, we’re making a channel for the water to flow down,” said Branson Williams, a rising junior at Garner High School, who learned about the YCC from a friend at church. “For the armor drains, the rocks keep [the drain] from eroding really fast.” Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
Williams uses a mallet to break down larger rocks into gravel pieces to complete the armor drain. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

trailwork
“What’s interesting about these crews is outside of situations like this, it takes years for you to get close to people and get to know them really well,” said Kate Kulinski, a recent high school graduate who will be attending UNC Asheville. “But in a crew, it’s like the process is just sped up, so it’s kind of crazy.” Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
“Also, just the physical toil of it is kind of challenging, too,” said Kulinski. Crew leader Noelle Rizzardi is seen here (left) carrying one of the rocks used to build armor drains. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
In addition to rock armor drains, students learned to build other formations on the trail to help contain and slow water flow, including rolling dips (pictured here). Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
Comfort Johnson, a rising junior at Jordan High School, shows off a critter she found. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
rhododendron
“I kind of like not having access to the news. You just feel separated from everything,” said Kulinski. “When I came back from Oregon last summer, Charlottesville had happened and so many problems with the North Korean missile crisis had happened. It was just all this stuff was happening, and I had no idea. It was refreshing … I like being unplugged.” Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
“I get to be in places that I’d never really get a chance to. It’s a really great way to spend the summer,” said Lyra Aquino, a rising freshman at Appalachian State University, who has participated in the NC Youth Conservation Corps for three years and will be pursuing a degree in sustainable development. “Honestly, it’s probably the best summer job you’ll ever get as a non-college graduate. Definitely a way to get exercise, be outside, connect, [and] unplug. It gets you in a really good mental space and physical space.” Kevin Conley/NC Youth Conservation Corps
“There are seven leave-no-trace policies, and they’re about how … to interact with the natural world around you to create minimum impact of you being there,” said Aquino. “So that you can preserve it for people who come after you.” Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
“We’re actually starting to see the decline of the natural world,” said Aquino. “It’s been happening, but we’re really starting to see the ramifications of our actions. If we want to have as many generations as possible to come after us, we’re going to need to change how the developing world is developing … We’ve created a linear system when we need a recyclable one.” Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC
“Through my outdoor recreation, I’ve become more of an environmental steward, and I think that’s true for anyone who spends time in the outdoors,” said Conley, a crew leader who has a degree in Parks and Conservation Area Management from Clemson University. “I love being outside. I love to share that passion with others.” Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.