Youth Conservation Corps students gain life skills, work in forest preserves
Shelly Regnier was a recent graduate of Mundelein High School when she took a summer job more than two decades ago working in the Lake County Forest Preserves through a conservation program. She had no idea how the experience would change her life.
At the age of 20, she finished up at the College of Lake County and started working as a crew leader for the Youth Conservation Corps, a program that provides jobs and environmental education to high school and college students interested in maintaining the Lake County Forest Preserves. She enjoyed the job that taught her conservation and some light construction techniques while focusing on teamwork and leadership skills.
Shelly said making lifelong friends was another highlight of the program. In fact, Shelly met her husband, Mike, during her first year working at YCC. Mike was also a crew leader. The two became friends and started dating. The couple then married and had their reception at ThunderHawk Golf Club, one of three public golf courses operated by the Lake County Forest Preserves.
"YCC shaped my professional life as well," said Shelly, who is superintendent of recreation for the Grayslake Park District. Mike works as a teacher in Waukegan.
When the Antioch couple's teenage daughters were looking for summer jobs, Shelly urged them to consider YCC.
"It's an amazing opportunity. I believe in hard work and a little sweat equity into their future," Shelly said.
She enjoys that her daughters are able to see how forest preserves operate and that they provide the county green space to enjoy.
The Regnier sisters were among 36 high school and college students who just completed the two-month summer program that fosters hands-on experience and education in conservation, environmental management and preservation. Working in teams of six, the students planted native species at Ethel's Woods Forest Preserve in Antioch, replaced a boardwalk at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods, worked on restoration projects at the Native Seed Nursery at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve in Grayslake, replaced split rail fences and cleared trails, as well as an array of other projects at preserves across the county.
"I liked working at Ethel's Woods, being outside and meeting new people," said Grace Regnier, while building a fence with her team and sister Lilly at Raven Glen Forest Preserve in Antioch.
Enjoying the outdoors is a common theme among workers. "I love the work we do and being outside," said crew member Vivian Cossey, a College of Lake County student studying horticulture. "And I enjoy giving back to the community," she said.
YCC crew members work 40 hours a week, make $8.25 an hour and can advance and earn up to $10.25 as a crew chief. Base pay will go up next year when the state's minimum wage of $10 per hour goes into effect. There is also a $1,300 AmeriCorps scholarship voucher for 17- and 18-year-old employees that can be used at any accredited college or trade school.
The job application process for the 45-year-old program begins in January and a lottery then takes place in the spring to hire students who work from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
David Cassin, superintendent of natural resources for the Lake County Forest Preserves, runs the YCC program and is hoping additional students participate in the program next summer.
This year, the program saw fewer people enter the lottery than in the past.
"To be eligible, applicants for crew positions must be residents of Lake County, and be at least 16 years old by the start of the program in June and no older than 18 at the end of the program in August."
Over the years, a handful of YCC members have gone on to work for the Lake County Forest Preserves as land planners, ranger police and preserve maintenance workers.
"It's a really good program that exposes students to working with a crew outside of their social geographic area," said Mike Tully, who was a YCC program manager while in graduate school. He now serves as chief operations officer for the Lake County Forest Preserves where he has worked for 28 years.
"Kids are exposed to environmental education while learning life skills," he said.
More recently, Joe Sisk was hired as a maintenance worker after spending four summers with YCC while attending Carthage College.
"The program proved to be so much more than just a summer job for me," he said. "It had an invaluable influence on me in developing a strong work ethic, affirming my interest in a career path and learning what it takes to be successful in this field that has a growing interest."
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.