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Youth group spruces up Staunton River State Park

Saturday marks the end of a three-week journey where 10 guys joined together to prove that hard work, perseverance and endurance pays off. 

Since June 22, seven crewmembers comprised of boys aged 14-17 from all over the state and three college-aged supervisors have joined together to fulfill the mission of DCR’s Virginia State Parks Youth Conservation Corps at Staunton River State Park. 

Their mission is to engage Virginia’s youth in a structured program of important conservation and park projects on public lands while providing learning that fosters teamwork, self-esteem, social responsibility and respect for the environment. 

According to Park Manager Adam Layman, these guys were given the opportunity to apply for a spot in the spring, and the division’s office of volunteerism reviewed the applicants, accepted them and assigned them to parks. 

 Supervisors participating this year are lead supervisor Kinner Ingram of Roanoke, Garrett Gipson of Williamsburg and Jacob Patterson of Williamsburg. 

Crewmembers include Steven Tatum of Stafford, Franklin Page of Grayson County, Jacob Watrous of Warrenton, Nathaniel Dinkel of Alexandria, Steven Speas of Gloucester, Gabriel Rothbart of Annandale and Bradley Minger of Stafford. 

 Watrous joined the group thanks to his mother spotting a newspaper article about the opportunity, and he said he applied because, “it seemed like it would be a fun, outdoor activity.” 

After hearing about it at school, Page decided he would get his parents to sign him up because he wanted to get back in the woods while helping out a state park and meeting new friends. 

Tatum decided this opportunity was for him after hearing about it from his horticulture teacher at North Stafford High School because he likes being outdoors.  

These past three weeks the lead supervisor says they have been almost parents to these teenagers as they live together in a bunkhouse, wake up early at 6:30 each morning for physical training and begin work on projects throughout the park while also leaving time for plenty of fun in the evenings and on weekends. 

 This is the third time that the lead supervisor has worked with YCC serving as a crewmember in 2009 at Fairy Stone State Park and as a supervisor last year at Holliday Lake State Park. 

Ingram described his first year as “terrifying” after he was thrown into a lead supervisor position not knowing what to expect, but he says this year has been more comfortable for him. 

Taking on the responsibility of the crewmembers’ “life support” as they set their schedule, wake them up, buy their food, make sure they’re dressed appropriately and make sure their bunkhouse is in top shape, the supervisors have been with them every step of the way to push them and witness as they achieve things they normally wouldn’t do. 

“It’s great to watch as you remember the first day when they didn’t even know each other’s name to now at the end seeing them come together as a unit,” said Ingram.

The park manager said the crewmembers and supervisors have been “fun to work with.

“They seem to really get along, and they’ve probably made lifelong friends. They are great to work with because they are willing to work, and they have gone about it with a real great attitude,” said Layman.

Crewmembers agreed that Layman was right about making lifelong friends. 

When they first arrived, Watrous, Page and Tatum agreed they were all nervous at first, especially since these three had never been away from home this long. 

“I was a little nervous about the other people and the supervisors and what we would be doing, but it’s a lot better than I thought it would be. Being here with these people, they sort of became like another family,” said Watrous. 

Page came in thinking it was going to be a lot of people but realizing who he’d be working with, he thought to himself, “Oh, this isn’t bad,” and by the end of the three weeks he said, “It’s been awesome. 

“I never did expect it to be like this. Just meeting all these friends, being out in nature, getting to help the park and just being out in a new area, it’s been great. I have made memories and hope to keep up with all these people,” said Page. 

Out of any group that Page has had to work with before for anything, he said, “This is the best group.”  

When asked about his fellow crewmembers, Tatum said, “They’re alright” as a grin came across his face. 

“We argue and disagree sometimes, but we all know it’s all fun and games in the end,” he added.

Each day from roughly 8:30 to 4 crewmembers took on projects to improve the park including upgrades to the amphitheatre located behind the visitor center, a two-mile riverbank clean-up and transforming a hiking trail located across from the visitor center to make it ADA accessible. 

Layman said the projects selected are up to each park and how they want to run the program. 

“We base it on what needs we have while looking for projects that would be meaningful for the park and meaningful for them,” Layman added.

“These are not your typical everyday stuff. We wanted some sort of project that they can come back years later and take pride in knowing that they worked on it and that it made a difference to the park and to the community.” 

As of noon Tuesday, the boys were already on the verge of completing their last project, the trail, and the park manager expected that they’d finish soon, meaning he’d have to find more stuff for them to do. 

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Layman. 

Earlier in the weeks, the crew worked to sand the amphitheatre, strip it down and re-stain it. They also redid the landscape around it and worked on some of the benches. 

Their two-mile riverbank clean-up, something the park does with their YCC groups each year, was an “experience they enjoyed” because they rode along in canoes as they picked up debris. 

To make the trail ADA-accessible, the trail was graded to meet grade before the crewmembers came, and then the crewmembers laid and packed a rock base, then a rock dust cap over that. 

“They are packing that so it’s a smooth, solid surface that meets specifications,” said Layman. 

In the fall, the park manager said they hope to complete a parking lot at the beginning of the trail and an overlook on the riverbank. The trail is expected to be open next spring.  

Watrous said, “It’s nice being able to look back and see what we’ve done making the trail. I like that it’s one big project rather than a bunch of little ones.”

Commenting on the trail project, Tatum said, “I like being able to build things like this and seeing your progress and knowing that it will be here for a long, long time.”

When the guys weren’t working, the supervisors led them on several fun activities including fishing, swimming, zip-lining and more. 

During these activities, Ingram said he enjoyed watching them “overcome things or do things they normally wouldn’t do while getting involved in nature.” 

Out of all the activities experienced, Watrous enjoyed going swimming and fishing the most, while Page said he enjoyed going canoeing, swimming and zip-lining. 

“I’m afraid of heights, but as I got into it, it was awesome. I didn’t want to get down. Before when people would tell me they went zip-lining, I’d tell them you are crazy, but now I’m like ‘let’s do it again,”’ said Page. 

Tatum also enjoyed accomplishing something for the first time, jumping off a dock. 

“It was really scary but fun once I did it,” said Tatum. 

He also enjoyed fishing and going to the lake. 

Overall, working together to complete these projects and spending each day doing something different, these crewmembers have truly enjoyed themselves and agreed their stay exceeded their expectations. 

“I wasn’t expecting any of this, all the fun and all that. I think everybody said they weren’t even expecting to do all of this. We thought it was going to be really strict and the supervisors are not at all. I expected it to be in a rundown place, and it isn’t. I really didn’t think it’d be this nice and fun,” said Page. 

Watrous came wanting to accomplish something he could show to his children one day or his family members, and he feels he did just that. He also is grateful for the skills he learned on the projects. 

“I wouldn’t know how to do this without coming here,” said Watrous. 

As the days ended, Tatum said he really had a good time. 

“It’s beyond my expectations. There is more work than I expected it to take, but it is also more fun than I thought it’d be,” said Tatum. 

Tomorrow the crewmembers’ parents will join them at the park for a graduation ceremony at the visitor center where supervisors will present certificates for all the work they’ve done. 

“We do appreciate the opportunity to work with these guys, and hopefully we have been able to teach them something, and we hope they’ve enjoyed themselves as well, not only doing the work but being able to explore our community and the park here,” said Layman. 

“The work they do is so valuable to us just because a lot of this stuff is larger projects than we are not always able to do as quickly as we can with a large group, so getting them in here and especially like with that trail in our summer season, it’s hard for us to work on a trail. The fact they were able to knock it out pretty quickly and really get a lot of work done helps us out a great deal,” Layman concluded.