- July 24, 2013
- Posted by Theresa Bushman
Tyler Sproule, a resident at the Special K Ranch just east of town, pointed to the rows of tomato plants hanging behind him, their thick vines heavy with not-quite-ripe fruit and curling around supports.
“See those there,” he asked. “Lowering these would normally take us like three days and we did it one day. I like having these new faces here.”
Those new faces are a group of Montana Conservation Corps members — six teens and a pair of Americorps service members as group leaders — in the youth service program who are spending a week at the ranch helping out, working side by side with its staff and residents.
The Special K Ranch houses 31 residents with developmental disabilities who live and work on the ranch in a Christian-oriented community.
As Sproule leads a small group of visitors through the ranch’s greenhouses, he points out different areas where the crew has helped or will pitch in by the end of the week.
They do a lot: lowering tomato plants here, packaging tomato plants there, clearing out weeds for a Bureau of Land Management project over there, clearing rocks and debris from a large patch of tilled dirt just outside.
Jono McKinney, MCC president and CEO, said the teens are part of a monthlong program that takes them around Eastern Montana for similar hands-on labor service projects with other groups and organizations.
“It gives people, everybody involved, a bigger sense of, ‘How do communities work?’” he said. “It’s about imparting that sense of how to be of service to your community.”
On Wednesday, after a half-week of working on the ranch, 15-year-old Nicholas Villegas, of Billings, said being a part of the MCC wasn’t exactly what he thought it’d be, but in a good way.
He’s had to get to know a half-dozen strangers quickly — they “bonded just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers — and work with them day in and day out, all while camping together. The experience so far has also changed the way he views community service.
“I’m just helping my community,” he said. “You come in knowing that community service is a good thing but you get such a sense of accomplishment when your done. You know you’ve earned sitting around that camp fire at the end of the night.”
Another big component of the teens’ work at the ranch is helping out with the BLM’s sage grouse habitat seedling rehabilitation project.
Wendy Velman, botany program lead for the Montana State Office, said the program mostly helps to grow plants, mostly sagebrush or sagebrush forbs, for sage grouse habitat or areas that need rehabilitation, a partnership in which the ranch provides the space and some of the labor.
“The ranch has the unique ability to experiment (with growing the plants) as much as they want,” she said.
The teen workers helped clear out a field where some of the plants will go later and worked to weed some of the growing areas in the greenhouse, among other odds and ends.
McKinney said that the MCC youth program is a great example of why national service programs are necessary and of how they can thrive with a little care and effort.
Those thoughts come at a time when there’s talk at the federal level of cutting all national service programs, the conservation corps included, and sequestration has slashed budgets, services and staffing at government agencies nationwide.
The MCC and its $6 million annual budget haven’t really felt the impacts of sequestration this year, said Tauzha Grantham, MCC’s Eastern Wildlands regional supervisor, but could next year.
The blow has been softened somewhat by its work to leverage existing grant money into partnerships with other organizations and groups into much more value per dollar.
McKinney pointed to the work at Special K Ranch as a perfect example, one that’s efficient while providing valuable experience to youngsters, instilling a passion for conservation and taking advantage of their talents. Using a $1.8 million Americorps grant, members from the MCC work together with the BLM, the ranch, the National Resources Conservation Service and others on projects to leverage that money into a $6 million operation.
“There’s a lot of moving parts that make the whole thing work,” he said.
On a more local level, Grantham said that both the kids — who come from all over, including Billings, Lewistown and even Seattle — and the residents at the ranch all benefit from working together.
“We get to tap into (the residents’) desire and their expertise and we we get to teach them about conservation,” she said.
“I don’t know many places in the United States that you can get this kind of experience with with this variety of people,” Velman added.
After this week, the group will head out to Miles City for a two-week MCC project and then head north for the final week before graduating on Aug. 10.
Nicholas said he came across an ad to join the MCC while reading the newspaper and looking for a summer job. Since, he’s been shoveling dirt, moving gravel and helping to package the ranch’s regionally famous tomatoes.
And he loves it.
“It just feels great,” he said. “I’m meeting these new people and I’m helping my community.”
Sproule, the 25-year-old who’s lived and worked at the ranch for the last year, said the help’s been an added bonus.
“It’s extra hands helping us finish our work,” he said. “The weeds always come back and I’ve been doing these tomatoes since the spring — that’s my thing — but having (the group) around is great.”
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