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How Youth are Building Trails and Community — Now and For the Future

Posted by Kaci Darsow at Sep 19, 2019 12:34 PM |
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Here's a look at what WTA's youth crews accomplished this summer.

September means that school is back in session — and it’s time to celebrate the successes of WTA’s summer youth volunteers!

In 2019, WTA hosted 18 youth volunteer vacations in some of Washington’s most iconic places. Here’s a look at what these high school students accomplished with their “time off” this summer.

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2019 saw an impressive amount of trail work completed by our youth volunteer vacationers. WTA photo.

  • More than 11 miles of trail were given new life this summer, through toughening up the trail tread to withstand the test of time, constructing new bridges and raised walkways as well as trimming back overgrowth from the trail corridor. This work will improve trail experiences for hikers, bikers, equestrians and all trail users. 
  • A combined total of 400 feet of brand new trail were completed by youth crews this summer, helping a lucky few learn just how much work it takes to transform an area of thick underbrush into finished trail. (Hint: It’s a lot!)
  • A new public pit toilet was installed at Mazama Camp to help preserve sensitive alpine environments. The toilet helps hikers observe Leave No Trace practices — and it offers a first-class view. 

#1 Latina Trail Crew 2019 group photo. Photo by Iris Zacarias.jpg
For the third consecutive year, WTA partnered with Latino Outdoors to host an all-girls trail crew at Mount Rainier National Park during Latino Conservation Week. Nine youth and three leaders spent a week in the White River area building stairs on the Wonderland Trail, learning about career pathways from National Park Service staff and enjoying time outdoors in the shadow of our region’s tallest volcano. Photo by Iris Zacarias.

This year, three of WTA’s 18 youth volunteer vacations were designed specifically for youth with shared identities. We hosted an LGBTQ+ youth crew, a Latina youth crew in partnership with Latino Outdoors during Latino Conservation Week and an all-girls youth crew. The goal of a shared-identity work party is to help ensure everyone feels welcome and represented in the WTA community. Providing a safe space for people who are part of groups currently under-represented in our volunteer base is key to increasing equitable participation and leadership, both on WTA work parties and among the broader hiking community.  We’ve heard from volunteers for these events that, while they had thought of volunteering in the past, it was a specific shared-identity opportunity that encouraged them to finally sign-up. 

A youth crew volunteer poses with a puncheon.
A rare look into the belly of the beast! Or rather, the inside of a puncheon. A youth volunteer takes a break to smile for the camera on a weeklong trip on the American River in the Naches Ranger District. Photo by Jacob Mandell.

Our youth volunteers often return from their volunteer vacations excited to share their experiences and feel empowered to make positive change in their communities. They even go on to help get other folks outdoors by starting hiking clubs, organizing work parties, loaning gear and inviting friends and family to visit the places they've worked.

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A youth volunteer in action on the trail. Photo by Britt Lê. 

In return for all they give to WTA, trails and the hiking community, youth volunteers earn a substantial number of volunteer service hours (up to 56!). While volunteers often cite service hours as their initial inspiration to sign up for a work party, they uncover many additional benefits as the week goes on. When asked why they signed up for a second trip with WTA, youth volunteers regularly highlight the opportunity they were given to showcase and practice their strengths and abilities.

Youth crews accomplished a huge amount of work this summer, but the value of these trips for WTA can't be measured solely by the miles of trail they improved. These passionate and dedicated teenage volunteers bring a flood of energy to the whole WTA community. While they certainly don’t shy away from hard work (one crew even asked for longer work days), there is never a shortage of fun either. They remind adults to not only give back to trails, but to have fun while doing it! 

#8 getting muddy. Photo by Mara Orenstein.JPG
The Tiffany Lake crew showcases all the good mud they’ve collected. Photo by Mara Orenstein.

Through our youth volunteer vacations and day-work parties, WTA’s youth program inspires the next generation of trail stewards. Several of this year’s crew leaders got their start as WTA youth participants themselves. Passing on the skills and knowledge of how to repair trails and build a strong trail community is essential for the future of trails. Our youth crew leaders create a community where youth can bring their true and authentic selves to the group, shine in their strengths and lean into challenges in a safe and supportive environment. With their new ideas and fresh perspectives, youth volunteers are not only the leaders of the future, they are valuable leaders right now. The input from youth volunteers helps to keep our programs relevant and responsive — and moves us all closer toward our goal of trails for everyone, forever

Get involved

Are you a teen interested in being a part of trail magic? Want to get involved next summer? Have a parent or guardian create a MyBackpack account with your account as a linked dependent. Complete all the forms and apply to a specific trip when registration opens in February.