Newsmakers, June 15, 2017

Air Date:
Heard On Newsmakers
Matthew Brantner, Andrea Frisch and Carmen Zinke
Matthew Brantner, Andrea Frisch and Carmen Zinke Hope Kirwan/WPR

An environmental conservation program based in La Crosse is hoping to become one of the first in the nation to expand its work opportunities and environmental education program to people of all abilities.

WisCorps is one of eight conservation corps in the state and about 130 nationwide that all have roots in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program created to put people back to work during the Great Depression.

The goal of the WisCorps program is to provide job opportunities for teens and young adults who work on environmental conservation projects like recreational trail building and habitat restoration at state and national parks in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan’s upper peninsula. The nonprofit organization has also expanded into improving neighborhoods in the La Crosse area.

For the first time this summer, WisCorps is providing jobs to people with a variety of abilities including someone with a visual impairment and another with a physical disability who will live and work together for four weeks helping with erosion control and planting in neighborhood parks and building accessible gardens.

WisCorps Executive Director Matthew Brantner said the program wants to provide work experience to more disabled people, one of the largest unemployed and underemployed groups of people in the country.

“Anytime we can start getting at any group of individuals to help them be more successful in the workplace and even enter the workplace, and that’s a lot of the issue sometimes,” Brantner said. “Whether it’s a physical barrier or just a barrier to entry into the workforce, we want to be able to remove that and get young people into the workforce and have young people of all abilities come in and conserve our state’s natural resources and revitalize our communities.”

According to 2016 statistics, Wisconsin ranked 10th in the nation with a 41.2 percent unemployment rate for people with disabilities. Wisconsin’s April unemployment rate of 3.2 percent is a 17-year low.

WisCorps is the first youth conservation corps to create a work program for those of any ability. There is a program for the visually impaired in Vermont. A conservation corps in Iowa and Minnesota has a program for the hearing impaired.

The group is being called the Inclusive Crew, and Brantner said the goal is to expand the concept to all of WisCorps work crews by next summer.

“There’s no precedence for building a trail with someone who uses a wheelchair or doing some of these projects with maybe an individual who has low vision,” he said. “There often isn’t a piece of equipment you can just purchase that will help you do x, y and z task out on the trail. We sometimes have to invent equipment. We have to sometimes adapt other equipment to each task.”

Conservation corps often do work to make nature more accessible, and WisCorps is hoping to become a destination for inclusive environmental education.

Inclusive program coordinator Andrea Frisch said they are hoping to make nature available to everyone.

“Scientifically, there are studies that say spending time in nature you have better outcomes for stress management,” she said. “Some individuals with different disabilities, for example autism, being outdoors and doing nature activities helps people focus and helps people experience things that they wouldn’t typically experience.”

WisCorps crews are beginning their work assignments Friday.

– John Davis

Episode Credits

  • Hope Kirwan Host
  • John Davis Producer
  • Matthew Brantner Guest
  • Andrea Frisch Guest