2017 Project of the Year: Northwest Youth Corps – ASL Inclusion Young Adult Crew

Believing that diversity is a key source of strength, Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) established its first American Sign Language (ASL) Inclusion Teen Crew in 2013 to provide workplace education and job-training to Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) youth. In 2016, this program expanded to offer the same opportunities to young adults, ages 19 – 24.

NYC’s ASL Inclusion Crew model offers Deaf young people a safe, supportive and accessible environment in which to earn a paycheck (and, if a teen, earn academic credit), gain valuable work experience, and develop leadership and teamwork skills.

NYC structures its ASL Inclusion Crews such that DHH young people and their “hearing” peers work alongside each other. In addition to providing a valuable work and learning experience to youth and young adults from the DHH community, dozens of hearing youth – as well as employees of the numerous resource management agencies with which NYC partners – have benefitted from increasing their understanding of Deaf Culture.  

Since its establishment, NYC’s ASL Inclusion program has grown immensely. Starting with an initial group of three individuals, the program served 15 DHH youth in 2015. In 2016, there was enough demand for the program that NYC fielded nine DHH youth on one crew and eight on another. This year also saw the emergence of the organization’s first young adult crew.  

In launching an ASL Inclusion program for young adults, NYC has been able to take on more complex projects and build a community among the various resource management agencies operating in the San Juan Islands. Although the Young Adult crew this past season was sponsored and funded by the National Park Service, the crew had the opportunity to work with San Juan County Parks, Washington State Parks, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Bureau of Land Management, the San Juan County Land Bank, and the Madrona Institute, which operates three local Conservation Corps. Not only did the ASL crew benefit from a wide range of service opportunities, but the entire San Juan Islands conservation community had the chance to experience the capability of an ASL crew.

NYC’s ASL crews have carried out an extremely wide range of projects. In 2016, during the eight-week field season, the five DHH participants and one ASL-using participant of the ASL Young Adult crew completed over 2,500 hours of hands-on conservation work in and around San Juan National Historical Park. Some accomplishments included clearing trails, removing invasive species, and working alongside scientists to collect ecological data. In total the crews carried out 4.46 miles of trail construction or maintenance, including construction of nine switchbacks; 23 drains; 30 feet of turnpike; and 16 feet of rock wall. This crew also built over 1,800 feet of fencing; completed 13 acres of invasive species removal; flagged 96 acres of property boundaries; carried out 1,140 square feet of beach cleanup, and restored 980 linear feet of vegetation.

In relation to NYC’s 32-year history, the ASL Inclusion crew concept is still “new.” The Corps was excited to expand the successful Youth Corps program to a Young Adult program, allowing teens who graduate the youth program to continue their training and perhaps move into full-time conservation careers. NYC hopes to see this program expanded to other Corps; over the years, NYC, Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa, Utah Conservation Corps and The Corps Network have created an ever-growing inclusion toolkit with information about how to support Conservation Corps crews with various needs.

Since first offering the ASL Inclusion Crew, NYC has grown as an organization and learned what it means to serve different populations. The initiative has reminded NYC staff about the importance of not using a “one size fits all” approach with any Corpsmembers, regardless of their abilities. It’s imperative to meet each Corpsmember’s specific needs and provide the necessary support for him or her to have a positive experience.