Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains.
Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.
"They're doing things they would never do otherwise," says Andrea Rieck, their crew supervisor at Operation Fresh Start, the nonprofit that provides construction training and employment opportunities for high school dropouts, ex-prisoners and other "disconnected youth." The organization now oversees the new Dane County Youth Conservation Corps, which County Executive Joe Parisi created earlier this year to provide environmental training opportunities.
Funded by a $64,000 investment from the county and more than $180,000 from Operation Fresh Start, the Youth Conservation Corps provides a team of 10 to 15 handpicked OFS members to work four days a week on a variety of county park projects. Collectively, they call themselves "The Brute Squad." In addition to their work at Lake View Hill and Festge parks, their year-round tasks have so far included building piers, trails, bridges and boardwalks, as well as clearing brush and cleaning up shores. Most recently, the crew worked on an environmental restoration project at the Tenney Park Lock.
"We can't keep up with all of the maintenance for the county parks," says Parisi, who paid a visit to corps members working at Lake View Hill the same day as Isthmus. He says the work done at Festge alone during the winter months would have taken members of the volunteer Friends of Festge County Park group years to complete. "They really make a difference."
Rieck has taught the crew how to identify plant and tree species, safely handle chemicals and operate dangerous machinery -- all in the name of making the environment safer and more welcoming to park patrons.
As part of Operation Fresh Start's 35-hour-per-week training program, members of the Youth Conservation Corps log classroom time aimed at helping them complete a high school certification by improving reading and math skills and teaching them how to write a resume and maintain a bank account. They will also receive post-secondary education opportunities and job-placement assistance.
An estimated 400 to 500 Dane County students drop out of high school every year, each one costing the community more than $250,000 over his or her lifetime, according to Greg Markle, executive director of Operation Fresh Start. Markle says the county's $64,000 investment in the Youth Conservation Corps will save millions of dollars while also beautifying the county.
The Brute Squad advances a Madison-area tradition begun back in the 1930s, when service groups composed of young people helped build the UW Arboretum. In the 1990s, similar groups worked to improve waterways throughout the county.
Current corps members earn a stipend of $700 per month and, upon completion, receive $2,000 in AmeriCorps grants good toward post-secondary education. But they don't do it just for the money.
"Fresh Start changes you," Parisi says. "You can't walk five feet without running into someone who cares for you and wants you to succeed."
"At first, I did come here because I heard about the money; I'm not going to lie," says Montraill Taylor, a 21-year-old Madison East dropout who once considered himself "a wreck," getting into frequent fights and doing whatever he needed to survive. "I didn't have nowhere to go before I started working at Fresh Start. I wanted to do construction, but I found out that wasn't for me. I'm happy to be out here in the wild to rebuild what man has destroyed."
A typical Fresh Start stint lasts 10 months, and Taylor hopes his experiences lead to a career as an arborist. "I definitely can see him doing that and having his own crew someday," Rieck says.
Jovan Wilson, also 21, with two kids, lacked motivation until he was chosen to be part of the corps. "I just want a job that makes me like going to work every day. If I don't like it, I'm not going to do it," he says, adding that the rapport he's built with his coworkers, whom he didn't know until he was given this opportunity, makes the crucial difference for him. "I can come here with a bad attitude, and as soon as I see the other guys, I feel different."
A zero-tolerance policy regarding drugs, guns and violence goes a long way toward ensuring members of the corps, as well as all Operation Fresh Start participants, stay on a straight path. "We teach them that there are other social groups that are healthier, including the people on their crews," Markle says.
While Dane County's Operation Fresh Start is one of nine such programs in Wisconsin, it is the only one in the state to offer a year-round Youth Conservation Corps -- making it a model for other counties and states.
"This program proves that if you provide people with opportunities to succeed, and you believe in them, it works," Parisi says. "They discover the key is really giving back. They're leaving something tangible behind."