Teen Trail Crew, a NH-JAG summer youth program. (Courtesy photo.)

Teen Trail Crew, a NH-JAG summer youth program. (Courtesy photo.)

Students garner life lessons on the trail

Jobs for America's Graduates and the Appalachian Mountain Club have partnered up to offer Berlin students meaningful, paid summer employment, skill-building work in environmental stewardship, and exposure to careers in conservation and land management

Despite the muggy heat of the late-July day, the blackflies still swarming the woods of Berlin, and the hard day’s work ahead, 16-year-old Julianna Willey is full of enthusiasm. She speaks in the lingo of an experienced trail-builder — of “laying a crush” and “making good tread” and learning to “fly” buckets with the grip hoist.

“It’s wonderful,” Willey says. “All the work is really fun. I’m learning a lot all the time.”

Willey and six other Berlin High School students make up the Teen Trail Crew, a NH-JAG summer youth program. NH-JAG — Jobs for America’s Graduates — started in 1987 with a focus on improving academic standing, decreasing drop-out rates, and preparing students for life after high school.

During the school year, JAG students learn employability skills, receive career guidance, and are supported in their academic efforts. Summer employment is an important component of the JAG program, and that’s where the Teen Trail Crew comes in. A collaboration between NH-JAG and the Appalachian Mountain Club, with grant support from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, the trail crew offers meaningful, paid summer employment, skill-building work in environmental stewardship, and exposure to careers in conservation and land management.

“This program does a great job of helping young people discover their own strengths — and showing them some of the really exciting outdoor career possibilities that the North Country has to offer,” said Kirsten Scobie, director of the Tillotson Funds. “We are thrilled to be able to support it.”

The Berlin NH-JAG program, founded almost two decades ago, is one of 11 throughout the state. Berlin JAG first partnered with AMC in 2011, working with students for two weeks to establish a new trail on Mount Jasper, which rises in steep cliff faces to a forested dome just behind the high school. The crew continues to improve and maintain that trail each year.

The NH-JAG/AMC partnership has grown from a two-week program to a full-summer, seven-week program. This year’s program brought students from Mount Jasper to Great Glen Trails, the White Mountain National Forest, and the summit of Mount Washington.

“By partnering with an organization like AMC, which understands and respects the mission of NH-JAG and the population of youth served, we are offering these young people so much more than just a paycheck,” said Janet Arnett, executive director for NH-JAG.

“The region’s history and economic health hinge in part on local youths’ engagement with, and understanding of, the opportunities of the local economy,” Arnett said. “This AMC/NH-JAG collaboration provides a great opportunity to expose students to some future career options while making a meaningful contribution to their community.”

Under the guidance of two AMC professional trail crew leaders, the students work together to build new trails, smooth out overused or damaged sections, and complete complex tasks like building stone steps along paths.

“None of this is fluff work,” said Alex DeLucia, Trails Volunteer Programs Manager for the AMC. “These students are doing professional-quality work.”

The trail crew starts the summer at Mount Jasper, where students learn the basics of trail-building, how to use the tools, and the value of teamwork. They also see that their work can make a difference close to home: Passing hikers thank the students for their work on the trail, and physical education classes use the trail during the school year. The Mount Jasper trail is also now included in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, the most comprehensive trail guide for hikers in the region.

“We select projects that are close to the high school, on public lands, and provide meaningful support to partnering land managers or significantly impact communities,” said DeLucia. “The students are exposed to the world of conservation and recreation management. They learn about career opportunities at the AMC, National Forest, state parks, land trusts, and more. Trail work helps develop problem-solving skills, patience, teamwork, perseverance, work ethic, and more that will help them in their future work and life goals.”

The group spent a week this summer exploring potential future employment opportunities. They drove the Mount Washington Auto Road, observed Forest Service and professional AMC trail crews at work in the alpine zone, toured the Mount Washington Observatory and visited AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, meeting with representatives from each department, from guest services to campsite caretakers to adventure guides.

Most importantly, these students are gaining a more thorough understanding of what their community has to offer beyond high school — and what they may offer to their community.