CORVALLIS - For years the Oregon State University Extension Service has helped farmers and ranchers in the state become more productive. More recently, the agency has taken some new clients: teens in need of employment skills.

During the mid-1990s Extension's 4-H program in Marion County began to get involved with teenagers who, for some reason, were not employable. Many came from low-income families.

The relatively new program is funded under the federal Workforce Investment Act.

"We're right out there in the forefront," said John Burt, who heads up OSU's Marion County Extension office. "It's a good place for Extension to be."

For the first several years the young men and women helped by Extension worked in such places as city and county parks, the humane society, and even helped get the county fair ready for opening day. It was in 2000 that Extension in Marion County changed its focus and began adding to the program teens who had a debt to pay society for minor crimes.

That first year, 14 teens between the ages of 14 and 18 - all on the Marion County Juvenile Department books - were introduced to the world of construction and gardening by members of another program, the OSU Extension Master Gardeners.

"All of the kids worked right behind our building here to help build a demonstration garden," said Burt. Older master gardeners, many retired, not only showed the teens how to grow plants but how to build a potting shed as well.

Towards the end of 2000, with the demonstration garden near completion, a new program was started, one that will continue through most of the school year. This involves OSU's Wildlife Stewards Program, which is managed by the Extension Service 4-H program.

Typically with the Wildlife Stewards Program, adults are taught wildlife management skills and then they go into schools and teach students what they've learned.

"We've structured that a little differently for the 14- through 18-year-olds," Burt said. "We'll give them the same wildlife stewards training, which is 50 to 60 hours, and then, as an example, let them team up with Marion County Public Works staff to help restore wildlife habitat."

The young wildlife stewards received favorable publicity last year when they helped county crews restore native vegetation in Bonesteele (county) Park east of Salem.

Burt and his staff are also offering to send teens in the Wildlife Stewards Program to schools with habitat restoration projects. "They'll be getting two things out of this: one, some training, and two, they'll be getting credit towards high school graduation."

Burt hopes the training will lead some of the teens to jobs in the nursery or natural resource industries. He's also seeking to place students with the right aptitude in nursery or landscaping internship programs.

Students in the program who meet performance standards also receive pay. "It's really a quarterly stipend, not much, but it did give them some money for Christmas."

As for any positive impact the association with OSU is having on the teens - that may not surface for a few years, according to one county official.

"One thing about all of these programs involving the kids is that often we never know until later," said Ed Cavaille of the Marion County Juvenile Department. "For some kids it's two or three years, for others it's five to 10 years, but we're finding that later on some of this has an impact.

"At some point," he added, "it all comes together for them. It could be the trips out to Bonesteele's Park. It could be the classes or the field trips."

Not all of the students in the program have troubled backgrounds.

Kyle Schwalk, a 17-year-old junior at South Salem, qualified for assistance because he comes from a low-income family. Schwalk, who has been involved with both the Master Gardeners and Wildlife Stewards programs, said he's learned a lot about nature and working with other people from his OSU mentors.

Schwalk, who plans on becoming a forest ranger after a stint in the army following high school, said that the OSU Extension Service helped him "connect with other people." It also helped him learn that many of the plants found in Oregon actually originated in Europe.

Schwalk said that he got along well with other students in the program, some of whom owed restitution for minor crimes. "The checks (for work performed) came just at the right time for Christmas," he said.

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John Burt, 503-373-3757