The U.S. Forest Service is always happy to receive a helping hand. And there are many potential helping hands attached to the arms of youngsters who have the summer free from school and a desire to help.
Put the two together and you have the Venture Program, a joint effort by the Forest Service and Granite School District to meet mutual needs.For the students who journey to the Soldier Creek Camp off Strawberry Reservoir, it's an opportunity to learn job skills, have fun outdoors and - if necessary - wipe out some of the poor grades they accrued in the past school year. The camp is open to boys or girls age 10 and up.
The Uintah National Forest administration gains hands to paint picnic shelters and Forest Service facilities, pull up the stumps left behind by Christmas tree harvesters, thin trees, build and repair fences, construct trails and do seeding for reclamation proj-ects.
"The Forest Service has been extremely cooperative," said Mike Nemelka, a special education teacher at Kearns High School when he isn't shepherding students at Venture camp. He conceived of the summer program to give young people some practical experience along with a few weeks of healthy outdoor activity. Some of the students are children the Nemelka family has adopted out of problem families.
"It's an opportunity for both the school district and for us," said Lisa Angotti, human resources assistant for Uintah Forest. Every time the Venture students get a job done - such as ripping out 150 tree stumps left by Christmas tree harvesters - it's a job done that saves taxpayer dollars, she noted. "We'd have had to pay for the work."
Forest Service personnel and camp advisers work with the kids and explain why a particular job must be done, she said. The students learn more about nature and about getting along as human beings as they work together.
"I think it's important to teach kids young. Then their motivations are right later," said Amanda Hughes, one of three Utah State University students who are involved in the program. Darren Sheffer and Kim Moss also provide guidance to the young campers.
An old storage building at the Soldier Creek camp was converted to a dormitory. "It was in need of restoration anyway. It was falling apart," said Angotti.
The kids eat in a cafeteria and have access to hot showers - in all, facilities that are anything but rustic. All that and the great outdoors.
Seeing a fawn was an exciting experience, said Jason. Matt, a typical boy, said he goes for the sleeping, swimming and cliff diving that are a reward at the end of a busy day.
Dustin picked up the nickname "Tick" when he found three of the insects crawling up his skinny frame in two days. But a hike through tick-infested sagebrush is worth it when there's fishing on the other side, he said.
Developing some marketable work skills made the Venture experience worthwhile for nine high school seniors who had dropped out of school. At the end of their camp time, they were hired in related jobs, seven of them at wages higher than minimum, Nemelka said.
One week of service at the camp can earna student one credit in an elective course, and up to four credits are available for those who extend their participation. Students can "work off" bad citizenship grades.
"The Venture Program gives a student who has a hard time in school a way to make it to graduation. Our program isolates them from distractions - like TV - and concentrates on work, life and social skills," Nemelka said.
Nemelka has just one disappointment with the joint school/
Forest Service venture - not enough participation. He is trying to convince school, law enforcement and court officials that hard work in the Venture Program is a good alternative for youths in need of a supervised experience.
He hopes to find sources of increased funding so he can expand the project next year.