Dave Jackson, superintendent of the park, said there are seven, 14-21 year olds working at the park full-time over the summer. "That's the most we've ever had (working with the program)," Jackson said. "One to three (is the average)." He said the youth are from the Mammoth Spring-Fulton County area.
Jackson said the youth are paid $8 per hour. "That (the pay) is pretty good for our area," he said. Jackson said the program is federally funded.
Youth accepted in the WIA program have to meet several guidelines to be eligible to get to work. There are economic eligibility requirements, unless they fall within a certain window, and youth must have at least one of six barriers compiled by the WIA. These barriers include deficiency in basic literacy skills, school dropout, homeless, runaway or foster child, pregnant or parenting, offender or needing additional assistance to complete an educational program or secure and hold employment.
Jackson said the park has had similar youth programs under different names since 1970. "CETA, that's the earliest one that many of us can remember," he said. Jackson said some of the park's full-time workers started out in some of the early youth programs.
Eddie Mitchell, the boys' supervisor in the WIA Youth Program and with park maintenance, was involved with CETA, which was similar to the WIA Youth Program program, in 1982. He was a youth worker back then and went on to part-time and, finally, a full-time worker. "I worked here (at the park) in '82 and '83, and then in '84 they hired me as full-time," Mitchell said.
"I liked it (working at the park) because it was a good work environment," Mitchell said. "The people are real friendly, and it's not every day work. It's different. You're doing different stuff all the time. It's not the same old every day, every day boring (activities). And you get to meet with some interesting people."
"The other thing I like about it, too, is that you spend about as much time here as you do at home," Mitchell said. "It's kind of like you've got two families."
April Walsh, the girls' supervisor at the park and a member of park staff, also worked with the WIA Youth Program in 1989 as a youth at the Mammoth Spring School.
Walsh said she works at the park now because it's close to home and family and the park is good at working with people and their hours. She also said her job can be exciting. "You meet people from everywhere -- the Netherlands, China, Japan, all over, and there's a lot of people who come back more than once," Walsh said.
Adam Davis, Welcome Center manager, said he was hired through the WIA Youth Program at the park right out of high school in 1999. "Then, I became a travel consultant, working with the park. After I got my degree, I was hired as the Welcome Center manager," Davis said.
"I was kind of drawn to it first of all because of the beauty of the location you're working in," Davis said. "There's not very many offices where you can walk outside and be in a park, so that's really neat."
"So, you can see the WIA program is kind of a foot in the door, for those who are good workers, anyway," Davis said.
For some youth, this is their first job. "They grow a lot," Walsh said about the youth in the WIA program. "For instance, I had one that (while) we were push mowing one day, she had never push mowed. She was 17 years old and never push mowed and she kept whining and whining and I said, 'Young lady, I've push mowed longer than you've been alive. We're going to push mow today.' Then, the next time (we push mow), they may not like it, but they know (how to do it)."
"We don't teach them how to do our job. We teach them how to do their job," Walsh said. She said that includes teaching them how to schedule their time and teaching them the importance of responsibility.
"They get to the point that we don't have to tell them what to do," Walsh said. "We try to teach them, when you see something that needs to be done, just do it."
"I tell the boys, 'Don't think about your job so much as think about the public. Think of why you're here in the first place,'" Mitchell said.
"Most of these children have never had to work or do anything in a professional environment and so you have to teach them work ethic and they learn other skills besides just work," Mitchell said. "They learn how to get along with co-workers."
Davis said during June of this year the park had about 53,822 visitors, and Mitchell and Walsh said they try to teach youth workers to do their best to maintain the beauty of the park for tourists just like they would their own home for guests. "They cover every inch of this park every day," Walsh said.
The program is also beneficial to the park. "The work site, which is us, we get free labor for the summer so we can do projects that we normally don't have time or personnel to get to. You can do a more thorough job because you have more resources," Jackson said.
"The main thing is they (the youth) are learning job skills to help them enter the workforce," Jackson said. "That's what they get out of it."
"It's not just about them helping us. It's about us helping them by giving them an opportunity to get into the job force, to make some money, to learn life skills and become an adult," Davis said.
"What makes you feel good about them is when you have a really outstanding kid," Mitchell said. "They develop a sense of pride in the park and their work to where you'll be watching them one day and instead of driving by that beer can laying in the ditch and, they don't know anybody's watching them, they stop and get it. It makes you feel good."
The youth working with the program have positive things to say about the program, as well. "It's actually pretty good," Bianca Paige, 17, said. "This is my first job that I've ever had and I'm learning a lot of different things about working with others and working in general. Sometimes it gets hot, but we've still got to work, and it's really fun for me. I've had a pretty good time working here. Some days you don't want to (work), but you still do."
"It's a really good experience," Nate Heotis, 20, said. "This place, they keep you well informed on what you're supposed to do."
"It'll help you to get a bigger job than just this little job here. It'll help you when you want to get on with your life," Paige said.