Engaging Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing Youth in the Outdoors

Inclusivity in the Corps World

Everyone faces small daily challenges and uncertainties. Fortunately, for many of us in this country, our troubles are relatively trivial. For those in the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community, however, communication barriers can make it prohibitively difficult to participate in basic interactions. In recognition of Deaf History Month, we’re looking at steps taken by America’s service and conservation Corps to make the workplace and the outdoors more accessible for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

Unfortunately, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals have fewer employment options due to a lack of resources in the workplace and preconceived notions about their abilities. It can be particularly difficult for a Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing young person with limited job experience to gain a foothold in the workforce. Recognizing this issue, the Corps community has gradually increased the presence of inclusive crews since the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s.

Based on the model of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, modern Corps are locally-based organizations that engage youth and recent veterans in service projects that address conservation and community needs. Through their service, Corps participants – or “Corpsmembers” – gain work experience and develop in-demand skills. Corpsmembers are compensated with a modest stipend and have access to mentors and counselors.

There are over 130 Corps across the country. While not all Corps have the resources to offer disability inclusion programs, several have made concerted efforts to expand their inclusivity. There are currently five Corps across the nation that provide employment, service, and volunteering opportunities for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing youth and young adults. Corps with such programs include, Northwest Youth Corps (OR/WA), Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (MN), Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (NM), Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VT), and Utah Conservation Corps (UT). We reached out to these organizations, as well as CorpsTHAT, a non-profit specializing in helping Corps develop ASL-inclusion programs.

How it Works

Corps typically operate under a “crew model” in which Corpsmembers serve together in small teams under the supervision of trained adults. ASL inclusive crews typically consist of hearing participants, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing participants, and ASL interpreters. Members of these crews work together on building and improving trails, restoring habitats, removing invasive species, and numerous other conservation projects. Projects usually take place on public lands and waters, including properties managed by agencies like the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service.

Through inclusive crews, Corps help people in the Deaf community explore the outdoors in a safe, welcoming manner. In addition to learning about cultural differences, participants in inclusive crews gain valuable leadership and communication skills as they create bonds with those who may be different from themselves.

“It gives members a chance to gain empowering real-life skills through a meaningful employment experience,” said Sean Damitz, Director of Utah Conservation Corps.  

The primary goal for Corps that provide these programs is to diversify populations they serve and promote cultural exchange among youth in their programs. Although some youth are pushed out of their comfort zones, learning new ways to communicate and work with others is extremely valuable.

Progression of Inclusion Practices

In the Midwest

Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa has served youth in the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community since the mid-1970s. What started as a business relationship between the Corps and local summer camps for the Deaf, flourished into the inclusion of Deaf individuals in CCMI programs over the last thirty years.

Under CCMI's crew model, the majority of Corpsmembers and crew leaders are Deaf, but there are a few hearing youth, as well as a crew leader who interprets. Other Corps, such as Northwest Youth Corps, have crews comprised entirely of Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing youth, with the occasional participant who is the child of Deaf adults. Still other programs incorporate a few Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing youth into a crew comprised predominately of hearing youth. All of these models provide participants of different abilities the opportunity to teach one another about their different cultures while working towards the common goal of completing the conservation project at hand.

Keeping Deaf individuals in leadership positons has proven to be a challenge for CCMI. Jonathan Goldenberg, CCMI’s Summer Youth Corps Program Manager explains, “As we do not have a full-time office staff member who is fluent in ASL, it becomes harder to share our program with the Deaf community.”

Working with new project sponsors has also been somewhat of a challenge. Project sponsors are usually local, state and federal resource management agencies that engage the Corps in conservation service. In the beginning, sponsors are a little unsure how to interact with the inclusive crews. After that initial awkwardness, however, a comfort level develops between both groups. The essential goal for CCMI’s inclusion program is to transcend fear of communication with those of various backgrounds.

“Many hearing youth have never had the opportunity to interact with Deaf youth, and the Deaf youth have the opportunity to share their language and culture with hearing youth who are super excited to learn (and in that, the Deaf youth learn from the hearing youth as well),” said Goldberg.

In the Pacific Northwest

In 2013, with the help of CorpsTHAT founders Emma Bixler and Sachiko Flores, Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) began their first disability inclusion crew. Although the first season was small, over the years it has grown into a renowned program, winning The Corps Network’s 2017 Project of the Year Award.

NYC’s success comes from offering two programs: one consisting of youth ages 16-19, the second with adults ages 19-24. Participants in each session work for five to eight weeks, which allows two sessions each summer. Crews travel throughout Washington, doing various types of restoration work in state and national parks and forests. The initial goal of starting a program like this was to provide Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals support, a comfortable space, and an equitable environment to experience the outdoors in our hearing-dominant world.

Even though NYC has experienced many successes with this program, they continue to face lack of support. Inclusion Coordinator, Darian Lightfoot states, “The largest challenge I’ve seen is people being unaware of Deaf culture and how to support equitable communication. All the information that hearing people are exposed to should be accessible to people using ASL, and that doesn’t always happen.”

Despite the communication barrier, hearing youth request to be on the ASL inclusion crew. This is a prime example of how valuable inclusive crews are to everyone involved. Lightfoot explains, “These hearing youth are able to see that the participants in the ASL inclusion crew are their peers and enjoy all the same things as them.”

In New England

Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) continues the progression of inclusive crews, recently winning a Public Lands Alliance Award for their partnership with the US Forest Service (USFS) to engage the Deaf community. Last year, VYCC expanded their partnership with USFS through a collaboration with the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NY. Through these partnerships, VYCC provided a cutting-edge inclusive conservation program. Youth completed various conservation projects at Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests in Vermont and New York.

During the four-week program, hearing members quickly adapted to using sign language, and Hard-of-Hearing youth were provided the support to successfully complete the projects at hand. Executive Director Breck Knauft states, “Having Deaf and hearing Corpsmembers work side-by-side exemplifies our belief that bringing people from different backgrounds together in service creates conditions for powerful learning.” VYCC also serves youth with different types of disabilities, including those with learning disabilities, vision impairment and blindness.

“The most rewarding aspect is watching people grow through their experience and overcome challenges they found daunting at the start of their service. Seeing the changes someone may go through in just 4 weeks is amazing. Also, talking with people whose lives were impacted be the program in the past, I often hear stories of people who were on a crew long ago and it changed their outlook on life”, Patrick Pfeifer, Conservation Program Director.

Barriers to Inclusion

“Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Corps programs are very important because Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people are often excluded from serving country and community due to the barriers and lack of opportunities,” said Emma Bixler and Sachiko Flores, founders of CorpsTHAT. “Corps programs help open great opportunities for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people to volunteer, show their community involvement on their résumés, and use their experience to obtain jobs.”

However, developing a successful inclusion program is not easy. Created in 2007, the Utah Conservation Corps (UCC) inclusive crew has seen its fair share of setbacks in terms of procuring funding and sponsors to run their program on an annual basis. Even so, their main challenge continues to be the accessibility of recreational sites. Their program engages individuals with various types of physical disabilities, not just those from the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community.

UCC developed a disability inclusion toolkit to inspire Corps around the country to develop their own inclusive programs. UCC credits accessibility condition surveys as the critical first step in determining if spaces are safe and welcoming for disabled participants on their crew. These surveys include a variety of tests and measurements: Are trails passable by a wheelchair? Do videos in the interpretation center have closed captions? In 2009, UCC assisted the U.S. Forest Service in developing a national database of information on the accessibility of public lands.

As opposed to more obvious structural issues that may limit the work of other inclusive crews, CorpsTHAT considers people’s assumptions and misunderstandings as the major barriers faced by Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing crews specifically. For the most part, the average hearing person has limited or no experience working with Deaf individuals. Both parties face fears of miscommunication, inaccurate assumptions, and lack of confidence in their ability to perform.

“When Deaf participants have full access to communication and are on the crews with other Deaf participants, the uncertainty is removed and all participants are able to have a barrier-free experience,” Said Bixler and Flores.

CorpsTHAT believes inclusion crews have unique benefits hearing crews lack. For example, inclusion crews’ productivity and attention level is at a higher rate than hearing crews. Due to their inability to comfortably communicate and work at the same time or hold side conversations, interruptions are scarce; all their focus and energy is geared towards completing the task at hand. Another benefit of inclusion crews is the strength of Deaf crew members’ visual-spatial abilities, which aid in solving problems or completing projects faster.

Though inclusive crews offer numerous benefits, one of the most rewarding aspects is providing all individuals – regardless of their abilities – the opportunity to serve our country through conservation efforts. Feeling safe and comfortable working outdoors is something many of us take for granted; these programs make conservation work something that more people can experience. Inclusive crews at Corps demonstrate that any workplace can adjust be more inclusive. The young people on these crews start off as strangers, but they face communication barriers head on and take the time to understand one another, despite cultural differences.

AmeriCorps Crews from Two Member Organizations of The Corps Network to Restore Iconic Trails in Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks

How Northwest Youth Corps’ American Sign Language Crews Overcome the Communication Barrier

Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) has developed a program dedicated to recruiting Deaf and Hard of hearing youth, and deploying them as American Sign Language (ASL) Inclusion crews. This fits into the Corps’ mission. Since 1984, the Corps has strived to provide opportunities for youth and young adults to learn, grow, and experience success. They focus on giving youth chances to experience education, challenges, community service, and develop critical life and leadership skills. NYC enrolls over 1000 young people each year.

Emma Bixler was crucial to making the American Sign Language program a reality. She is the Inclusion Coordinator of the program. She stays with the crew for most of the summer program not only as the coordinator but as the interpreter as well. She helped bring the program to life, after working on similar inclusive crews at Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa.

The ASL crews consist of ten young people between the ages of 16 and 19, whom are Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing. They are accompanied by two Crew Leaders, who are fluent in ASL. The ASL crews work throughout the state of Oregon and in Northern California to maintain and construct hiking trails, restore habitat for native plants and animals, and complete many other environmental conservation projects.

As part of the experience, Corpsmembers who can hear learn American Sign Language and other lessons throughout their term of service so that they can better communicate with their peers.

“We give them flash cards and some lessons to go over, so they can learn basic signs to communicate with the Deaf youth… The growth that occurs with communication over the next five weeks is very impressive… To see that growth is really exciting.” says Gruening.

Gruening says that after an initial period of acclimation, the ASL Inclusion crews have a similar experience to other crews.

“They have the same amount of challenges any other crew would have: they are all out of their comfort zones, not being able to sleep in their beds, no showers, not being able to go on their cell phones.”

Each of the crews in the summer program get to meet during the weekends. The first couple of weeks are a little shaky but through fun activities and bonding experiences, the crews get better every day at communicating to the point where they don’t require an interpreter.

The ASL Inclusion Crew program at Northwest Youth Corps is about so much more than land conservation and leadership development. It’s about uniting Deaf youth and hearing youth so that they have a common experience.

Gruening remarks that “I wish people could see what I see, when I see all the youth the first week off in their own little corner like really shy and quiet, you know? Not really wanting to engage with everyone. Then by the end of the five weeks they are this huge group that have learned to overcome the communication barrier. While also just learning to have fun and work with each other, even though it might be difficult.”

You can watch a video demonstration advertising the ASL InclusionCrew program below:

Camping out with Corps: Camping tips from a Crew Leader

Many of America’s Youth Service and Conservation Corps operate programs that engage youth and young adults in backcountry land and water conservation projects. For days, or even weeks at a time, crews of Corpsmembers will camp in some of the most remote locations in the continental U.S. to fix trails, build bridges and maintain our public lands.

For the Crew Leaders who train and manage the Corpsmembers on these backcountry trips, camping is second nature. When you regularly camp with a group of teens and young adults, some of whom might have little or no outdoor experience, you need to be prepared.

Here are some expert camping tips from Brayton Noll, a former Crew Leader from Northwest Youth Corps’ (NYC) Youth Conservation Corps.


1.       What do you do at the campsite during downtime?

During the first couple weeks we don’t have much downtime because everyone is getting used to the processes. They’ll have 20 minutes or so multiple times throughout the day, but most of the time we’re trying to engage them either in SEED – which is our Something Educational Every Day lesson – or playing some games.

My favorite part of NYC is that we do PHs – or personal histories. That’s where the youth get basically an evening to talk about themselves and give the crew their life story. This really bonds the crew together. We usually do that during the second week once the crewmembers know one another and the trust has been established. Ideally it takes place around the campfire and the youth just have the floor for the evening. People ask them questions at the end and they share what brought them to this point.

The youth earn high school credit while doing our program, so we have 5 – 6 weeks of structured lessons planned. We do a theme every week. The first week is living in a camping environment, so we teach them camping basics, how to get along in a group, we make group contracts, we teach them the importance of treating everyone equally. Then the second week, if I’m remembering correctly, we teach geography, we teach them about the landscape around them. The third week is, I think, botany and we teach them about the plants that are around them. We also do resume skills and mock interviews, where the youth practice interviewing and the Crew Leaders teach them skills like how to write an affective cover letter, or how to act in an interview. It’s a pretty holistic educational experience.


2.       What food do you prepare when you’re camping?

NYC supplies us with all the food we need every week. We pick it up when we all meet at the weekend site. Our Program Coordinator will come out and meet all the crews and bring the coolers with all the food we need.

Our food room manager gives us a menu. The youth are doing the cooking – and often they’re new to cooking – so for the first week you generally want to follow the menu to make sure you’re not using up all the meat and cheese on the first night.

But eventually the youth begin to get creative and some really good and interesting meals…sometimes good, always interesting…come out of when the youth drop the menu and just go freeform.

The food room does a pretty decent job of mixing it up. We do a lot of Dutch oven cooking, so we’ll have deep dish pizzas, or cornbread, or burritos, or sometimes this “lasagna-ish” thing, depending on what the youth can do. During the third week of the program – we call it hump week, NYC gives the Crew Leaders $25 to spend on food for a treat. I would generally buy some steak and candy for my kids. Crew Leaders would cook for one meal that week and that would be really delicious because we don’t get steak on a normal basis.

What’s an average day like as far as the menu?

Before we go to work, so around 6:30 or 7, we’ll either have oatmeal with granola, brown sugar and raisins, or bagels with cream cheese. Then at around 10 a.m. we break and everyone eats one sandwich. Every day we generally have 2 sandwiches: one PB&J and one meat sandwich. Most of the time we would eat PB&J sandwiches around 10 o-clock with some Gold Fish or some gorp, maybe a piece of fruit. At lunch you eat your meat sandwich, maybe some more gorp, you get cookies, and some more fruit. Then in the afternoon there’s another break. Most of the time a lot of the food is gone, but we always have gorp, so people will just be snacking on that and rehydrating.

In the evening there’s dinner. All of the meals are generally pretty huge. I used to try and do the SEED lecture before dinner because after dinner the kids just sort of stuff themselves and go into a post-dinner comatose and want to go to bed once they’re done with their chores.


3.       Do you have any tips for camping with a larger group?

I think being really clear. NYC has taught me to be more efficient than I ever thought I could be in regards to camping outside. So being really clear on expectations up front is very important. We have a chore sheet; it works really well to the Crew Leader’s advantage to be really diligent about filling it out and talking to the youth every day about what their responsibilities are. Each youth has an assigned chore that rotates throughout the week, so everyone gets experience cooking, everyone gets experience sharpening the tools, everyone gets experience packing food for the next day. You need to invest time upfront: five minutes explaining something now could save you an hour later.


4.       Some Corpsmembers have little or no camping experience prior to joining the Corps. What would be your most valuable tip for a first-time camper?

Just try it! Some of my favorite and best youth were the ones who had very little camping experience and were just open-minded and excited about trying it. They just totally bought in. Even girls or guys who had never peed in the woods beforehand were, by the end, these hardcore campers that loved to get dirty and embraced every aspect of NYC. The prospect of all that we do can be really intimidating at first, but when you’re learning alongside you’re nine other crewmembers and your two Crew Leaders, it’s a pretty fun and rewarding experience.


Northwest Youth Corps Partners with 2015 American Trails International Trails Symposium

Next May, the 2015 American Trails International Trails Symposium will take place in Portland, Oregon. Northwest Youth Corps has been helping to work on the Symposium and will represent the Corps Movement at the Symposium as the trails world continues to focus on youth as an integral part of their efforts to build and maintain trail systems, and continue to make them a terrific resource for today's Americans.

You can read more about the Symposium and "Ten Reasons to Attend" on pages 10-13 in the Fall edition of American Trails magazine. 

Northwest Youth Corps Celebrates Its 30th Year Anniversary

Since 1984, Northwest Youth Corps has helped more than 18,000 youth and young adults from diverse backgrounds to learn, grow, and experience success.


NYC got its start during the depths of the recession hitting Oregon in the early 1980s. Finally, after two long years of lining up the necessary work sponsorships and grants for crew equipment, NYC’s founder was able to write on NYC’s very first day of operation,


“…this concept (the founding of NYC) is no longer a dream... We are starting to get work done. In a few more days we should be able to show the world that, with the right people people willing to really give it their best NYC is here, and it is here to stay!”


Although NYC has grown dramatically since then, our mission remains unchanged: helping young people to become stronger, more engaged with the world around them, and more confident of their abilities to meet their goals in life. 


In 2013, Northwest Youth Corps crews completed 113,636 hours of priority natural and/or cultural resource projects for 113 partners including three US Army Corps of Engineer units, eight BLM districts, three National Park Service sites, four Oregon State Parks and Recreation locations, and 19 USFS National Forests.  As one graduate put it, however, "...NYC is more about building people, character, and community than it is about building trails." 


 “Northwest Youth Corps taught me much more than just how to build, fix and maintain trails; it taught me how to be a leader, how to take initiative and how to push myself.  I now can take the things NYC gave me and apply it to my life and what I have planned for my future.”

—    NYC 2013 Graduate


To celebrate our 30th year of service to youth, communities, and the outdoors, Northwest Youth Corps is hosting a 30th Year Celebration during the weekend of September 6-7, 2014, at the NYC campus, in Eugene, Oregon.  Planned activities include a festive dinner, NYC Share Your Adventure contest with cash prizes, family fun day, barbeque, service project, free tent camping, and more!  To learn more, visit www.nwyouthcorps.org/30Years.aspx. We also invite our alumni and others to “like” our Facebook alumni page, https://www.facebook.com/northwestyouthcorpsalumni?fref=ts  and get updates this way.

Condolences to Northwest Youth Corps

Story appears on NWYC Facebook page.

It is with a deep sadness that we recognize the passing of Quintin Horseman, a member of Northwest Youth Corps’ Spokane CCC AmeriCorps crew. Quintin was involved in a bicycle accident while on his way to his service site Monday morning. He passed away in the hospital surrounded by family and those that love him.

Quintin had been a part of Northwest Youth Corps for several months and was a spirited and vital member of the crew. He will be remembered as a man who worked hard to improve himself; a young man who faced and defeated many obstacles that would seem insurmountable to most. He recently received his GED as well as a welding certification, and was serving as an AmeriCorps Member to develop technical skills and increase his career readiness. His life is a testament to perseverance and dedication. He has set an example for others to follow, and will be sorely missed.

We know that the Northwest Youth Corps family is an incredibly caring and empathetic group. We ask that you please keep Quintin and his family in your hearts and prayers as they move through the difficult period ahead. NYC has set up a fund raising campaign to help Quintin’s family with the costs associated with his medical care and memorial. Please visit 
http://www.gofundme.com/bc94x0 to make a donation.

Northwest Youth Corps Crew honored at Sandy Ridge BLM Celebration

Article appears on Northwest Youth Corps website.

On July 8th, the US Bureau of Land Management Leadership Team held a press conference at the Sandy Ridge Trailhead to celebrate the impact of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).  LWCF funds helped fund the removal of a dam, restore the Sandy watershed, and create the Sandy Ridge Trail system, which has become known as a world class mountain bike destination, which sees over 120,000 visitors per year.  Partners in this effort include the Bureau of Land Management, Western Rivers Conservancy, International Mountain Bike Association, Northwest Youth Corps, Clackamas County, and Ant Farm Youth Corps.  Pictured is the Blue crew with BLM Leaders, including Neil Kornze - BLM Director and Jerry Perez - OR/WA BLM Director. Northwest Youth Corps has been working on the Sandy Ridge project since 2009.

Secretary Sally Jewell Visits Northwest Youth Corps as Part of National Park Week

Last weekend, in recognition of National Park Week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. She also met with Corpsmembers and staff from Northwest Youth Corps. Read about it here.

Written by Amelia Templeton
OPB - Oregon Public Broadcast

Secretary of Interior Jewell Sees Signs of Drought at Crater Lake

Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell visited Crater Lake National Park this weekend, celebrating National Park Week.

Jewell went snowshoeing at the crater rim with students from the Network Charter School in Eugene. Jewell said she was impressed at how passionate the Eugene students were about conservation.

"They were terrific. I mean really poetic. Not just talking about National Parks, but talking about our lands, and how we use our lands and need to be more thoughtful about things we extract as opposed to conservation," she said.

Jewell also met with a Northwest Youth Corps work crew. She said she was struck by the signs of climate change and drought she saw in the park. Read more

10 Conservation Corps Receive New Funding from Department of the Interior

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announces new project funding at an event with Northwest Youth Corps.

Last week we previewed an announcement of grants to be made by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell that she made at an event with Northwest Youth Corps (see more photos here).

Ten conservation corps who are members of The Corps Network were among the recipients of new grants to support youth employment and stewardship on federal lands. They include

Montana Conservation Corps
Student Conservation Association (California)
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (NM)
Southwest Conservation Corps
Northwest Youth Corps
Nevada Conservation Corps
San Joaquin Regional Conservation Corps
Western Colorado Conservation Corps 
Los Angeles Conservation Corps
Urban Conservation Corps (Southern California Mountains Foundation)

Full descriptions of each project that was funded (including those of the Corps above) can be seen here. We congratulate all of our members on this great success!