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Building a future

NEAR SOLON — Though it was late June in Iowa, and hot enough for the guys digging post-holes by hand and lifting a heavy steel guardrail into place, no complaints could be heard. There were smiles, jokes, and even laughter as the rail was hefted into place and secured with bolts.
Not only had the group knocked another project off Coralville Lake Park Ranger Jeffrey Peck’s “to do” list, they also further proved themselves to their boss, Ranger Peck.
These workers, seven young men of the Urban Youth Corps, are a group of kids aged 16 to 21. The Federal program for at-risk youth has been in existence since 1993, and is funded through a federal Department of Transportation (DOT) “enhancement grant” which is administered through ResCare. The approximately $30,000 grant has a 30 percent match through ResCare.
ResCare regional director Cokie Ikerd explained what the program is all about.
“They come from different walks of life, and we want them to learn life skills,” Ikerd said.
The program has between 30 and 35 workers deployed to six sites located around Iowa. The DOT grant mandates they work on transportation-related projects. Peck noted the kids do a lot of trails work. In addition, a mandatory educational component is built-in. The young men and women learn first aid and CPR at the start of the eight-week program, and sit through resumé writing and interviewing skills classes toward the end.
“This is often the first job experience for these kids,” Ikerd said.
As a result of the lack of work experience, the program focuses early on “soft skills” which Peck described as: “Showing up for work on time, bringing your lunch, bringing your tools and being ready to go when you get here.” References and job search help is available for the kids upon successful completion of the program.
Before the program started in June, Peck and Ikerd laid out a plan. ResCare works with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a set of objectives, list projects, and develop a budget. According to Ikerd, 55 percent of the grant money must go toward wages and fringe benefits for the workers. Other grant money goes toward tools and safety equipment, as well as the mandatory first aid, CPR, and blood borne pathogens trainings. The resume building, interview skills, and job skills classes are also covered by the grant money.
This year’s crew has not only met but exceeded Peck’s expectations. He noted he had scheduled a week’s worth of work on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
“They got it done in two days,” Peck said.
A week and a half worth of work on the Woodpecker and Squire Point trails was completed in four days.
“I have a hard time staying ahead of these guys,” Peck said with a smile.
Although he is technically in charge of the group, he is quick to pass the credit for the accomplishments on to the crew.
“Having a strong crew leader is key,” Peck added. In addition to his regularly assigned duties, he has assumed numerous “unofficial” duties directly related to the crew. Peck is boss and father, mentor and advisor, friend and foil (though in a friendly, joking way).
The kids’ individual backgrounds vary. Some come from low-income situations. Others live in a single-parent household, while others are homeless or just lacking job experience. Regardless of the cause, they have been identified as having “barriers to employment” and being “at-risk.” Some have had trouble in school or with the law. However, their desire to succeed has more than endeared them to Peck.
“I will do anything for any one of these kids,” Peck said.
As for the workers themselves, all expressed nothing but enthusiasm for the program.
“I like it, it’s good work,” said Dustin Smith of Coralville. “It’s fun to be outside and around other people.” Smith said he plans to start the Parks and Natural Resources program at Kirkwood Community College this fall.
“We love it!” Nick Wood of Coralville and Jeff Hedges of Iowa City exclaimed.
Hedges added, “It’s better than last year; we’re not working with a flood this time.” Hedges is one of the few who is working for a second term. Typically, the program tries not to repeat employees “…so more people can benefit from it,” Ikerd said.
According to Ikerd, there is no shortage of interested applicants. Between 35 and 40 applied this year from around the area, including Williamsburg, Oxford, North Liberty, Solon, Lone Tree, Kalona, Coralville, and Iowa City.
For Ryan Quigley of Iowa City, school will also be his focus this fall.
“I like it (the Youth Corps program) a lot. I like working outside.”
Thomas Caddell, a native Hawaiian, could barely contain his enthusiasm for the program.
“Awesome!” he exclaimed. Caddell, who goes by the nickname “Hawaii,” came to Iowa to visit and decided to stay. “I love everything I do. I love to work hard and break a sweat while I’m doing it.” He was not as thrilled with his first Iowa winter last year, however. Hawaii recently graduated from high school and plans to work for awhile before going on to college.
In addition to the benefits to the kids, the program also provides benefits to the taxpayers. Peck pointed out the return on the dollars invested.
“Without these guys, I’d have to spend more in labor for regular workers,” he said, noting he wouldn’t be able to afford to complete all of the projects needed. Peck estimates between $60,000 and $80,000 would have to be spent in the same eight-week time frame to accomplish the same goals.
“It’s a great program,” Ikerd concluded, “the youth get so much value out of it.”