Jobs coming out of the ‘wood’-work

It isn’t that surprising that a group of teenagers who spend about 20 hours a week working in the hot summer sun should have Dairy Queen on the brain.

For the team of high school-age youth that will finish their tour of duty with the Tree Trust Community Conservation Corps this week, cold refreshments can be a welcome discussion point while laboring to construct a timber walking path and edgers around the archery range at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

In Raysean Bauer of Oakdale’s case, who, at 13, was the youngest of the six Tree Trust teens moving earth and hauling large timber blocks in the early hours of Aug. 4, the dessert eatery has more to offer than just ice cream cakes and Blizzards.

“I might work at Dairy Queen next year,” said Bauer, who hoped to one day become a veterinarian. “(They) have good floats. And it’s one of the few places you can work when you’re 14.”

Aspiration and a work ethic are just some of the qualities the Tree Trust program has tried to foster in area youth for nearly 30 years (an anniversary celebration for next year is in the works). Each March, the organization hires over 300 young people aged anywhere from 13 to 21 and made eligible by coming from either a low income, special needs or at risk background. The teens are then put to work on outdoor projects, generally involving landscaping, construction or agriculture and often located in state parks like the Lake Elmo Reserve.

This year, however, proved to be unique, and not in a way the Tree Trust organizers would prefer. Because the program is funded almost entirely from the state budget or foundation grants, this year’s Tree Trust project was delayed while the special session of the State Legislature hammered out the budget, only to find that the program suffered a 25 percent cut in funding.

The usual 10-week program was reduced to nine and, according to Tree Trust representative Tammy Dickinson, only 18 different crews are at work around the state whereas, in the program’s “heyday”, there were as many as 36.

“We’re down to about half strength,” Dickinson said. “We need to make sure the Legislature recognizes the value of the program.”

Ironically, the one person perhaps most responsible for the cuts in Tree Trust’s funding happens to be it’s most well-known alumni. In 1983, Gov. Tim Pawlenty served as a staff member for the program and has supported it every year he has been in office - except this year.

“In year’s past, the Minnesota youth program has always been in the governor’s budget and this year it was not in there for the first time in years,” said Dickinson who, herself, worked for the program when she was 14, returned in college and has now been in its front office for 12 years.

Besides the over 28,000 youth and 6,900 adults the not-for-profit organization has employed since 1976 (when it was initiated to help reforest the Twin Cities following an onslaught of Dutch elm disease), thousands of park improvements and other service projects have been completed through this unique job training program.

‘Social’ work

Perhaps the best evidence of its merit, however, was on display at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve archery range on Aug. 4.

“It’s fun here,” said Jasmine “Jazz” Murray, 14, who worked side-by-side with her cousin, 15-year-old LaTanya Clay (nicknamed “T”).

The Tree Trust project is the first job for both girls who they said they enjoy the people they work with and the new friends they’ve made. However, it seems their favorite highlight of their summer job has been tormenting Mark Gobeli, 22, their adult crew leader who himself has been hired for the program for the first time this year.

“Mark told us about his girlfriend from college and we made up a song about it,” Murray related with a smile. “We also (got his cell phone number) and called him at 2 a.m. ... that was a big no-no.”

Such antics, while generally harmless, can go too far. Just a week before, two Tree Trust teens from a different group had been fired from the program after secretly ordering pizza and having it delivered to the site.

“A lot of kids are used to a classroom environment where the consequences are different,” Dickinson said. “But (here), if you choose not to do what your supervisor asks you to do, you will lose your job.”

Unlike many other employers, however, Dickinson noted that the Tree Trust leaders will often work with parents of teens who are terminated to determine if perhaps the problem was simply age or maturity and leave open the possibility of a return the following year.

According to Gobeli and site supervisor Jesse Miller, 20, most of their charges are not difficult to manage and, in fact, the two college students had developed relationships with each of the youth workers.

“It’s rewarding to see the kids learn how to do things,” said Miller, who was promoted from crew leader to site supervisor after returning for her second year this summer. “It’s nice not having them ask for help all the time any more ... We just try to keep them working while they don’t talk about work.”

Indeed, the topics of conversation on the work site seem to cover a wide range. From 17-year old Paul Emerson debating his prowess at bowling with 19-year-old Ray Patterson (Patterson: “I bowl more than you;” Emerson: “Yeah, but if I practice, I’ll be better than you.”), to Josh Stoltz, 15, trying to fool a visiting reporter into believing his first name was actually Josiah while Miller taught him how to get a timber board flush.

Besides the social advantages, the Tree Trust program is also financially beneficial to aspiring young adults. Each teen is started at $5.25 per hour with the possibility of a raise to $6.25 halfway through the program. In the meantime, there are other rewards as well.

“We have competitions to see who can get a board in the fastest,” Miller said. “They can earn Popsicles or pizza sometimes.”

Which leads Murray and Clay to begin discussing Murray’s upcoming birthday and what kind of treats they will be able to get from the local Dairy Queen (ice cream cake, ice cream cookies). If this were a year from now, they might be purchasing those items from their coworker Raysean Bauer.

In the case Paul Emerson, however, the Lake Elmo teen already thinks he knows what his plans will be next summer.

“I’ll probably work here one more year,” he says leaning on his shovel and grinning.

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