The whole crew on a recent work day.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Meet 'The Brute Squad'

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."

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (Near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

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.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

Mama Madison: Watching talent grow

Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.

Mama Madison: Writing time at Olbrich

If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.

Mama Madison: When UW-Madison's semester is over, the kids want out too

There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.

Mama Madison: Another amazing talent show

My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.

Mama Madison: Preserving children's stories

My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.

Tenting tonight? Not so fast -- take the time to prepare for the first family camping trip

What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!