Paying It Forward at Prompton
By Bill D.
Visualize the following items: bags of concrete mix, various widths of pressure-treated lumber cut to different lengths, and gallon cans of paint and wood stain. Now picture the saws, hammers, brushes, shovels, nuts, bolt, screws, and mixing buckets necessary to turn those raw goods into something like a picnic table, sign post, or footbridge. Never mind the hefty dent you’ve just put in your wallet at the hardware store, just focus on the mass of construction material that now rests in the back of your truck. Most people would lament having to only unload that stuff in their backyard, but you simply don’t have to unload it, you also have to haul it all a few miles into the woods, up hills and over rocky trails. This isn’t a job. Heck, you’re not even a professional contractor. You spend your week in an office, driving a truck, manning a counter, or writing term papers but now you’re a volunteer doing trail maintenance and park construction in your free time.
Hike along any trail, not just in Pennsylvania but practically anywhere in the country, and chances are you are benefitting from the labor of volunteers. Sure, some parks and forests have rangers and trail crews that do similar work and there are programs such as Americorps or state-run agencies where people get paid to construct and upkeep the trails, but by-and-large when you lace up your boots and hit the trail you owe a debt of gratitude to volunteers. Thus is the case at Prompton State Park. Last month I had the opportunity to tag along with a group of folks dedicated to improving the park. Not only did I get to see their handiwork but also gained some insight into why they love what they do.
I arrived at Prompton equipped with some tools and a day pack. Myself being a veteran of trail work, I expected I’d be cutting or digging something. Instead, I spent an hour speaking with Mike Losicco from The Family Foundation School in Hancock, N.Y. He and Eric Anderson brought seven of the kids from the school to the park that day to finish up some painting projects they had started earlier. While he and I chatted, Eric and Paul Mang from the Friends of Prompton State Park supervised the kids. Mike gave me some insight into the students and a bit of history about the school and the program. He didn’t make any bones about it; the kids at the school are at-risk youth. Some have had run-ins with the law, had discipline problems at home, or were underachievers in their schools. Like many programs, The Family Foundation School is based on principles and ideals set forth in Alcoholics Anonymous. While not all of the students have substance abuse issues, Mike explained that these Steps can be applied to all sorts of destructive behavior and the kids at The Family Foundation School run a gamut of challenges ranging from gambling, to violence, to eating disorders.
Step Eight in most programs involves making amends. Mike explained to me that he had met Paul through the Northeast Wilderness Experience where Paul had led several trips for the school. Mike noticed that help was needed at the park and figured that since the school was benefitting from the park, some sort of payback was in order. Turning “making amends” into “paying it forward,” Mike called for volunteers one day at the school and the response was nearly immediate and overwhelming. That was over a year ago. Since then, Mike and Eric have brought dozens of kids to the park to do service. By the time Mike and I finished our talk, the kids had blown through their work. It was a light day for them. The heavy work had been done a few weeks before and soon we were off hiking to check up on the old work and find a nice place to eat lunch.
Hiking along I got to speak to the students. I had a hard time pegging them as troubled youth. I’ve worked with at-risk teens and young adults with substance abuse issues before. They weren’t the pseudo-tough street kids that break down in the woods nor were they reminiscing about their drunken or drug induced escapades as I had seen people in other groups do. These kids come from Brooklyn, the New Jersey suburbs, and the Deep South. There’s no stereotype either. They’re all young men, some were wearing tank tops and basketball shorts and some were wearing jeans and camo baseball hats. They spoke of sports, their classes, and what they want to study in college or do for a living. When I asked why they come out to help, they all said it was mostly because they enjoyed being outdoors.
As we approached a large trail sign they spoke proudly about the work they did to erect it. It wasn’t arrogant boasting either. They recounted hauling in the heavy timbers and what it took to dig the postholes in the rocky ground. High school football players might speak of a 60-yard push to score a winning fourth quarter touchdown in the same manner. Similarly, as getting to play sports is a privilege in most schools, being allowed to work on the trail crew is something these kids have to earn. The kids who come out to help have been at the school for several months and need to meet academic standards and show that they are progressing through the program. Unlike their counterparts on the gridiron, there are no fans in the stands or cheerleaders on the sidelines. When the job is done, they go back to campus and I doubt few people even think about the trail when they visit the park, let alone what it took to put up a sign or fix a bridge.
We stopped for lunch above the small waterfall along the trail. Here the crew had cut out part of the bank in order to make a level spot for the picnic table they hauled in piece-by-piece a few weeks earlier. I didn’t really have to ask them about the table. I too have been able to hike a trail I helped cut and have slept in a campsite I helped build. I knew what they were feeling. They love the park too. After lunch they explored the creek with Paul and Eric keeping a watchful eye on them for safety. Discipline wasn’t an issue. Paul doesn’t stand for it and the kids know it and respect him for it. They are thankful to help him and the friends’ group. I’m not sure how many teens would be “thankful” to tote tools and timber into the forest, spend the day getting dirty and tired, and then come back for more. These kids are, and you should be thankful for them and their work.
So the next time you are hiking at Prompton State Park, or any public trail, take a minute to think about the people who keep the trails open. Ponder, even if just for a moment, the trail sign, shelter, or campsite five miles from nowhere and what it took to put it there. Utter a word of thanks and then, hike on.
If you want to help the Friends of Prompton State Park, visit www.friendsofprompton.com or call 570-253-5744.