VYCC and US Forest Service Serve Deaf Youth, Win Public Lands Alliance Award

February 27, 2017 | 

Richmond, VT – Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) received the 2016 Public Lands Partner Award from the Public Lands Alliance in recognition of their exemplary partnership and innovative new program to serve the Deaf Community. This month, an awards ceremony held in Arlington Virginia celebrated the partnership’s creativity, inclusivity and collaboration.

In 2016, VYCC and the USFS expanded their partnership to offer programming to youth who are Deaf and/or hard of hearing through a collaboration with the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NY.

Lauren Sprague was one of the crew’s two young adult leaders. She and her co-leader Alyssa Weisenstein led the eight-member crew, which combined youth and leaders who speak American Sign Language (ASL) and English. Sprague states, “My experience working with VYCC and the ASL crew was a breathtaking and rich experience. Crew Members had to learn how to communicate through two completely different languages. Working together and seeing the project completed was very rewarding.”

VYCC and the USFS have a longstanding partnership that enrolls youth and young adults in residential conservation programs on the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests in Vermont and New York. Corps Members learn leadership and resource management skills while stewarding their public land.

“One of the biggest projects we worked on was building a bridge,” Sprague explains. “Crew Members took turns to work on different projects such as hauling rocks, breaking rocks into gravel, making waterbars, and using engineering skills to build a perfect bridge! I remember feeling proud of ourselves for working so hard and we were smiling and laughing at the end of the day.”

Over the four-week experience, the members of Sprague’s crew learned they are capable of working within a diverse group. Hearing Members were quick to pick up sign language. Members who are deaf learned how to succeed in a work environment with a different language and culture. One Member expressed that he was excited to return home to teach his family sign language. Another is planning to return to VYCC as a Crew Leader with aspirations to be an engineer.

“This program required extensive fundraising, research, education and program development, but VYCC took it on enthusiastically,” says Holly Knox, Recreation Program Manager for the Green Mountain National Forest’s Rochester and Middlebury Ranger Districts. Knox shares, “At a time when nonprofit organizations can be stretched thin, VYCC was willing to tackle a new program.”

“We were thrilled to be able to offer the VYCC experience to the Deaf Community,” says VYCC’s Executive Director Breck Knauft. “Having Deaf and hearing Corps Members work side by side exemplifies our belief that bringing people from different backgrounds together in service creates conditions for powerful learning. It’s also worth noting that all VYCC experiences are available because our partners have meaningful work for crews to complete. The US Forest Service is an exemplary partner. Their commitment to our public lands and youth is remarkable.”

The Deaf Inclusion Crew will be available in 2017, and VYCC is encouraging applications. To learn more and apply for Corps Member and Crew Leader positions, visit www.vycc.org/join.