KENAI — The construction of a playground in Nikiski marks a major step forward for local nonprofit Youth Restoration Corps. The organization obtained earlier this year a contractor’s license, as the state required, and expanded its vocational program.
“We’ve always focused on working with the youth through teaching job skills, and the vocational program furthers that mission,” said Kelly Wolf, the Corps co-founder and project manager. “And this was the perfect project.
The Corps continue to work on the Nikiski park, with completion slated for early October. Kenai Peninsula families gathered Sept. 15 at the construction site to help with the project. Starting next year, the Corps plans to construct one single-family home yearly.
About 20 residents turned out to help Sept. 15. The playground is located at the Nikiski Community Recreation Center, just off the Kenai Spur Highway.
Children, ages 3 to 5, carried materials like sand and pieces of playground equipment to designated areas, Wolf said.
“They were thrilled to be out here helping, especially on something they’ll eventually be playing on,” he said.
One picture, which Wolf said he found most surprising, taken during the Sept. 15 gathering shows a mother and two brothers carrying decking to the playground’s “shipwreck” area. A baby rested lazily, strapped to the mom’s back. Residents were eager to take part, Wolf said.
The playground consists of black and grey structural beams. One of the playground’s apparatuses looks like a space shuttle. It consists of 15 apparatuses, and eight of those are completed.
Youth members of the Corps as well as local construction companies have donated time and labor to the playground’s completion.
Kelly and Elvira Wolf started the Corps 15 years ago. They intended to simply “get the youth outside, give them a meaningful summer job,” said Elvira Wolf. Since its beginnings, the Corps have partnered with Chugach National Forest, offering trail maintenance jobs to youth members.
The Corps have invested a total of 67,000 hours and involved more than 400 kids in projects across the state, Kelly Wolf said.
Park preservation, river bank restoration and fire safety work were the norm for a number of years then the Corps, with the help of an advisory board that includes Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, began to expand their programs.
High school students, ages 16 to 19, are the target audience for the new vocational program. The Wolfs are alarmed by the area’s current dropout rate.
According the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s dropout rate for the 2010-2011 school year was 3 percent, or 133 students. That rate is actually an indicator that the district is retaining more students.
Various professionals sit of the Corps board of directors (separate from its advisory board). Former schoolteachers, military and police officers share the nonprofit’s vision for stewardship, said the Wolfs.
Regardless of whether teenagers decide to go to college, they said, skills are needed to succeed.
“You cannot make a living working at McDonald’s,” Elvira Wolf said. “They need to learn skills that they can support themselves with.”
The Corps operate on what they call a 60-40 model. That is, 60 percent actual work on a project and 40 percent education.
Kelly Wolf said he hopes to build one single-family home a year along with youth members. Construction skills are a key component of the new vocational program.
“Everyone who drives on the highways, lives in a home, works in a office, that infrastructure is built by construction workers,” he said.
“A lot of these kids, they’re taking a look around, thinking about the current economy. They’re seeing the same things the adults are seeing. And they’re wanting more opportunity to get ahead, to take a chance and learn something for the future.”
Kelly listed youth who have cycled through the nonprofit: a vice principal at a Colorado grade school, a Navy police officer, a Juneau-based biologist working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I could go on forever,” he said.