(COYCC crews implementing new PPE procedures under HOC’s COVID-19 Protocol | Photo courtesy of Heart of Oregon Corps)
This year, residents around the U.S. are facing unprecedented challenges, as COVID-19 has substantially changed daily lives for all of us. As millions come to terms with recent unemployment, the economic barriers are especially present in Central Oregon, where unemployment has historically been high. This can put enormous pressure on families, highlighting the growing need for collaborative efforts that promote economic growth.
As summer kicks off, so does the Central Oregon Youth Conservation Corps (COYCC), in which young people ages 16-18 work in collaboration with partners at the US Forest Service (USFS) to improve public lands such as the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests and Crooked River National Grassland. This long-standing partnership between the two organizations highlights the connection between a healthy local economy and the preservation of cherished public lands. As Oregon enters a future of uncertainty, and the growing need for economic recovery, workforce development programs such as COYCC are becoming increasingly essential. Tyler McRae, Summer Programs Manager at Heart of Oregon Corps (HOC) reflected: “We put real effort in to make sure that, if we were able to run the program, we could do so as safely as possible. Partners in this program, as well as the crews and crew leaders, have done great work adhering to COVID-19 guidelines on top of their regular work duties.”
Each year, HOC serves over 300 opportunity youth (those facing significant economic barriers) through a work-earn-learn model that cultivates job-skills training to build competitive job candidates and empower the future generation of workforce leaders. This year also marks HOC’s 20th anniversary of serving youth in Central Oregon, a testament to the value of workforce development projects in the region. Similar to many organizations, Heart of Oregon has had to adapt its operations in response to the current pandemic and ensure that guidelines are followed for the safety of our communities. During the time when all programs were paused, HOC staff mobilized to implement its COVID-19 Operations protocol, enabling young people to continue working while maximizing workplace safety.
Earlier this month, COYCC kicked off its summer season, with operations looking substantially different as new physical distancing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are integrated into day-to-day practices. While HOC operates under independent COVID-19 protocol, efforts are mirrored by the USFS, which is currently implementing its own Safety Protocol under which risk assessments are conducted for all activities at the National Forest level.
“The U.S. Forest Service is proud to host crews in Prineville and other Central Oregon locations,” said Shane Jeffries, forest supervisor of the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland. “We’ve done a lot of planning and preparation to ensure young people are safe working with us this season. We’re happy that we can continue to provide these great opportunities for them to connect to their public lands while working in their own communities.”
Outdoor recreation on public lands has always been elemental to the Central Oregon lifestyle and has helped shape its communities. With this high level of engagement comes an equally strong need for good stewardship. As youth in the COYCC program partner with the USFS to work on projects such as hazardous fuels reduction, riparian habitat restoration and trail maintenance, they are empowered as future leaders in stewardship, and their earnings are reinvested into their own communities. The continued effort from COYCC and USFS to ensure that program operations move forward in the safest way possible reflects the dedication these partners have to our young people. In the 2008 financial crisis, Heart of Oregon provided critical job-skills training youth during a period of economic recovery. As Oregon continues to grapple with continued economic uncertainty in the coming months, there is little doubt of the importance of programs like COYCC and the positive impact such partnerships have on young people in the region.