Lexy Stevens wipes the sweat from her brow, blows a strand of long brown hair from her face and once again slams a heavy steel bar into a hole in the ground to loosen the dirt.
PORTLAND — Lexy Stevens wipes the sweat from her brow, blows a strand of long brown hair from her face and once again slams a heavy steel bar into a hole in the ground to loosen the dirt.
At 5 1/2; feet, the bar is 4 inches longer than the Gresham girl is tall.
The 16-year-old is undeterred. She and several other teens in light blue T-shirts are putting up a split-rail fence to keep people out of a wildlife area in Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, one of Portland's most important natural areas.
They are part of Portland's Youth Conservation Corps, which is paying minimum wage this summer to 64 teenagers to remove ivy and other invasive species, maintain trails, restore natural areas and put mulch around newly planted trees in city parks and natural areas.
Some of the corps members are from well-to-do families, looking for meaningful summer work. Some came through a youth violence-prevention program. And others, like Stevens, are enrolled in Southeast Works, a nonprofit that helps high school dropouts from across the metro area get a diploma.
Administered by the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation, the Youth Conservation Corps is one of a number of summer youth jobs programs under way in the region getting a share of federal stimulus dollars. In this case, about 20 percent of the funding is federal stimulus. The rest is city money.
Overall, about $3.3 million in stimulus money is going for summer jobs for 1,170 low-income workers ages 16 to 24 in Multnomah and Washington counties.
All those jobs — in city and county government and in private businesses — will keep young people working for an average of six weeks. Each will earn an average of $1,500, said Amy Parkhurst, a nonprofit agency worker who administers U.S. Department of Labor employment and training programs in the two counties.
"Ten years ago, funding for large-scale jobs programs went away," Parkhurst said. "Simultaneously, the unemployment rate for people this age has skyrocketed."
The stimulus money targets teens at risk of dropping out of high school.
"We know that kids who work in the summer are more likely to go back to school and to complete school," Parkhurst said. "If they were disengaged and just hanging out, it's more likely that they wouldn't be going back to school."
Lexy Stevens and many others in the Portland Youth Conservation Corps are living proof of that troubling fact. They have already dropped out but are taking steps to rectify that mistake.
They spend every other day in the classroom working toward their GED, a high-school equivalency. For that, they earn the same $8.40 an hour they do when they are building fences or watering plants. Southeast Works pays their salaries.
Astrid Dragoy, a city employee who oversees the Youth Conservation Corps, said it isn't just about the diploma or the summer spending money.
"We're not just creating jobs here, we're teaching life skills," she said. "We're investing in their future.
Louise Shorr, a Parks Bureau supervisor in Southeast Portland, said most of the teenagers she oversees in the conservation corps have had a bumpy road in their short lives.
"The kids didn't have the role models that a lot of us had growing up," Shorr said. "These are kids who've been left at home alone since childhood. They've been mentally abandoned."
Shorr said the program is teaching them about having positive attitudes, appropriate attire, proper boundaries and respect for others. And sometimes the lessons are tough. Two teens have been kicked out for bad behavior. One walked off the job, and another repeatedly used inappropriate language in a first aid class.
"They have to learn what's acceptable in the classroom and in the workplace," Shorr said. "These are responsibility skills."
Sometimes, that's a challenge, Shorr said, yet most of them are truly motivated. All the participants came to the program on their own. Stevens said she applied after hearing about it from some of her friends.
"I'm learning how to be a hard worker," she said. "It's going to help me succeed at my job."
Sharon Blaine, 16, wants to be a wildlife biologist. Her forays into Oaks Bottom taught her about invasive species such as bullfrogs, which spread disease and eat native amphibians.
Blaine dropped out of Franklin High School during 10th grade and said she joined the Southeast Works program after hearing about it from friends. She likes the mix of working and school and is now aiming for college.
"They teach us how to get a job, careers and how to interview," she said. "I think this will help me get into college. I'll be prepared."
Merle Roberts, the crew leader, said the experience offers teenagers a balance between real life and learning. For many, it's their first job, and he has to often remind them to put away cell phones and to keep at it.
Roberts occasionally will hold a one-on-one session if someone is struggling with a personal problem, but, for the most part, those are treated as side issues, much as they would be in a regular work setting.
All told, the program will cost the city $263,000 — 20 percent in federal stimulus money and the rest from the Parks and Environmental Services bureaus, cobbled together during a tight budget year.
But the taxpayer investment isn't just in the preservation of the landscape, it's in the future of the participants, said City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Parks Bureau. The program offers meaningful summer employment while teaching teens who have struggled to cope in a traditional school setting how to be hard workers and good citizens, he said.
"That's a hell of a deal," Fish said. "My dream is that these kids, down the road, apply for jobs with Portland Parks and that we get to hire some of them."
Dragoy said there is one other aspect of the program that possibly is the most important. It teaches the kids to have fun.
"You should always have fun in your job and this is your job," she said. "Life is too short."
As they dig holes and hammer fence boards, the group in Oaks Bottom certainly seems to be in the moment. There are lots of smiles and no tension.
The steel bar hits something hard and Stevens looks down into the hole.
"I think it's a brick," she says with winded breath.
Josh Hendrix, 16, leans over on a red-handled post hole digger one hole over.
"You still haven't dug the hole yet?" he teases.
Stevens, determined and brick removed, slams the steel bar into the earth again with a soft grunt.
"I'm almost done," she says.