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YouthWork Spotlight: Stir the Soup. Article 4.

Updated: Oct 21, 2019

By Nicole O'Brien



YouthWork Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps Program based out of Child and Family Services of Northern Michigan, began in 2018 with support, guidance, and encouragement of many vital contributors including Child and Family Services (CFS), the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), the Michigan Community Services Commission (MCSC), Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS), and a network of important investors. These groups share similar missions: to strengthen families and communities through advocacy, education, civic engagement, and self empowerment. 


YouthWork is open to opportunity youth ages 17-26 that fit one of the following criteria: have cognitive, learning or physical disabilities; are in or have been in foster care; are homeless or at risk of homelessness; live in persistent poverty; have been involved with or adjudicated in the courts; or face other significant challenges that make learning new skills and connecting with their communities difficult.


In January 2018, Bill Watson, our program director, presented his desire for CFS to become the sponsor organization of our YouthWork AmeriCorps Program, a goal he has had since 2001. Around this time, Bill also spoke with representatives of the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Michigan Community Services Commission, who oversee AmeriCorps programs at the State and National levels. 


CFS' YouthWork became an official AmeriCorps program and has just begun its third year of operating under the AmeriCorps umbrella. Bill was committed to starting our program. So committed in fact, he and his colleagues went without pay for the first few months. By the end of May 2018, around forty members had joined our program and our staff was in place, ready to get things done for our communities.


As word of our program spread, municipalities, nonprofits, and government agencies like the National Park Service generously began "hiring" our crews to help build and sustain the our community spaces. Conservation Corps like ours were established in 1934 during the Great Depression with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legislation of the “New Deal.” His aim in implementing conservation corps was to initiate economic stability and increase environmental stewardship.


In the summer, our members serve alongside various project partners to complete environmental conservation projects throughout the state in crews of 3-6. Our members undertake tasks such as rebuilding accessible boardwalks/ramps, renovating parks, building kit houses, and much more. 


In the winter, our members commit their efforts in many different ways including indoor building, reconstruction work, and assisting other nonprofits and government agencies. Throughout the year, partners like MRS and Michigan Works! help by supporting the program financially, assisting YouthWork in meeting matches required for AmeriCorps funding. 

In just two years, YouthWork has provided meaningful job skills and experience to over 150 young men and women with disabilities, including myself. Our members come from places like MRS, CFS, TBAISD,The Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative (a program of DHHS), the courts, and more.


Recently, I interviewed Bill, our Director. In the interview, he said when he promotes Youthwork to prospective affiliate programs and donors, he compares it to the children’s book Stone Soup. As the story goes, a hungry boy enters a village and ask the villagers if they have food for him to eat. Initially, the villagers say no, as they themselves are poor. Soon after, the boy realizes he has a pot and a stone, perfect for making soup. Before long, every villager has contributed an ingredient towards tasty soup the whole village can enjoy. Likewise, if our community partners can pitch in some resources to sustain our program we are bound to give back to the community at large.


On behalf of all of us at YouthWork, I would like to thank all the affiliate programs/partners and donors that make YouthWork possible - MCSC, CNCS, CFS, MRS, DHHS, TBAISD, The National Park Service, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, The Corps Network, local community foundations and private funders, and countless others. Most of all, I’d like to thank Bill Watson for humbly boiling the soup-now simmering in our community. My experience at YouthWork has had a lasting impact on my self confidence. 


Although employing people with disabilities has drastically increased since the 2000’s, there is still a wide discrepancy between employing people with disabilities and their able bodied peers. I have always wondered if this is because employers think that people with disabilities can’t contribute as much to the work environment as their able bodied peers. Hopefully throughout my blog posts and service with YouthWork, I have demonstrated otherwise.

Do you think you have an ingredient to stir in our soup? Contact Bill Watson or Amanda Elliott via email at BWatson@CFS3L.org or aelliott@CFS3L.org.

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