Thomas Hark, formerly of Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, is a 2017 Corps Legacy Achivement Award Winner. We interviewed Thomas to learn more about him and his experience in the Corps movement. Click here to read his bio.
Tell us a little bit about your background, where you come from.
I grew up in Minnesota and in my junior year of college took a summer job with the federal YCC program in Young Harris Georgia. I had offers at 19 national parks but was oddly drawn to this small, indiscrete, operation in northern Georgia. It changed the course of my life.
How did you become involved in Service and Conservation Corps? What were you doing before?
I thought I would return the next year to the federal YCC program and direct a camp of my own. However, that year President Reagan froze federal funds and all but eliminated the YCC program. I was shocked.
An idea kept rolling around in my head and soon turned into a graduate thesis: What are the necessary and critical elements to creating a public-private YCC program. I believed it was possible and was determined to prove it.
I graduated from college and took a job directing the Minnesota YCC summer program and when I learned that Minnesota would be hosting a national meeting on how to start a YCC I immediately and enthusiastically signed up.
My application was rejected as I was an under employed college graduate with no professional experience to my name. Yes, I had enthusiasm and passion but truly nothing else. However, the night before the conference I got a call. Organizers needed someone to pick guests up at airport and drive them 40 miles to the Wilder Conference center. I jumped!
I was able to meet everyone who had anything do with YCCs at the time…legendary Robert Burkhart from the SFCC, Joanna Lennon from East May YCC and many others.
I also met an individual from Vermont, Peter Comart, who was there because a piece of legislation just passed with a one dollar appropriation and he wanted to learn how to put one of these programs together. Suffice it to say I overwhelmed him with passion and enthusiasm.
It was a match made in heaven. I didn’t need much being hungry for a job and he did not have much to offer, outside an opportunity. However, I had ideas and a plan, untested, and perhaps a little crazy. They were game and promised all their support. A few months later I was in Vermont.
One dollar. No desk. No phone. While I was wildly excited as it felt like the opportunity of a lifetime, the state agency apparently did not know I was even coming, as of course a one dollar appropriation was not much of a mandate.
I landed in May 10th and had my first 5 Enrollees working by mid-June. I thought I would say a few years and then go home to Minnesota.
However, what happened was significant growth every year, an outlet for endless creativity and experimentation, and an enormous amount of fun…25 years later I realized I was not going anywhere. I loved Vermont. VYCC was my vocation. While I didn’t make much of a paycheck, I absolutely loved my work. I literally pinched myself some nights after working 12+ hours, as I left work, thinking how it was possible to be so happy!
That one dollar was eventually, over thirty years leveraged to more than 50,000,000 dollars, more than 6000 alumni, and a 400 acre campus and to die for training center.
However, what was so cool was to have work that mattered and where every day I could see the positive life-changing impacts on the lives of others be they enrollees, staff, or others in the community, similar to my initial YCC experience in Georgia.
Part of the driving force was to emulate my hero, Liz Cornish, the camp director that hired me against her better judgment, supported me, challenged me, and in the process changed my life. I never forgot and I always have tried to live up to her example.
Who are some of your heroes? What did they do to inspire you?
Liz Cornish, the Camp Director in Young Harris YCC. She was an incredibly talented Outward Bound Instructor who knew how to build teams by bringing the best out of each person. She pushed me to my absolute limits and in the process created in me a hunger to help do the same for others.
Describe some of your most memorable experiences working in youth development.
The Mission of VYCC was for each member of the organization to fully embrace, adopt, and live by the idea of taking personal responsibility for all of their actions, what they say and what they do….
A young women was fired. She was having an “exclusive” relationship which was prohibited as the goal was for each crew of incredibly diverse individuals in the short month long residential experience, to truly get to know each other and build a strong community. Something not possible if two people spent all their time together and in so doing were not part of the community.
She could not have disagreed more with this rule. However, she knew going in what was expected, she had had chances, and now VYCC was following through. She was sent home.
Several months afterwards I received a letter saying she still strongly disagreed with the rule…and she was angry…however, not because of this rule. She went on to explain that upon her return this idea of personal responsibility that was woven into every aspect of VYCC life had just stuck with her, she couldn’t shake it. And thus her whole life had changed. Everyone in her life seemed different as no one seemed to take responsibility for anything. It was incredibly disturbing. She could never go back to being like them as VYCC had changed her.
She still didn’t like the rule but she was so thankful for the experience as this one idea around personal responsibility was empowering. She was now in control. She made decisions and good or bad, she owned them. She felt like a whole new person. And she was.
Given your experience, what is the primary piece of wisdom you would give to a young person currently enrolled in a Corps?
Whatever you do, give it everything you have, or get out. It is your choice. It really is.
What is the primary piece of advice you would give to staff at Corps?
A poem by Marge Percy was recited by Robert Burkhart at the opening session of that conference in Minnesota on how to start a Corps. The poem was entitled “To be of Use. A line in said “The work of the world is as common as mud…done well it is a Hopi vase that holds water and satisfies thirst for centuries…done poorly it becomes falls apart becoming dust…
Whatever you do. Dot it with all your heart. Do it as well as you possibly can. Take joy in it. Have passion. Have fun with it. Take chances. Don’t be afraid to fail. Embrace your successes and failures as just two sides of the same coin treating both the same. Keep moving forward as hard as it can be at times.
This is what I have shared countless times.
In the future, what developments would you like to see happen in the Corps movement?
What I told folks when I first came to Vermont was that I believed every young Vermonter who wanted to have this experience should. This belief drove everything I did.
I now have expanded my view. I believe every young adult in our Nation who wants to work hard, make a difference, and grow as a person should have this opportunity.
When I left VYCC I took some time to think and reflect and my conclusion was that this is powerful important work. More, we live in a time where it is absolutely crucial that we instill character, virtue, practical wisdom, and what I call bed rock American values in every young American. As we do, we will change our Country. We can again become that shining city on the hill. A beacon again for all the world.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I set out to test an idea. That idea was to create a successful public-private venture that, based on quality outcomes, and a solid business model, would last the test of time, providing these incredible life changing experiences, called YCC, to generation after generation. A model that would withstand whatever political winds happened to be blowing. A model that would teach practical leadership skills so that every alumni would make a difference for their own family, place of work, community and state, and through this nation.
Each of us has it in us to change the world, or at least our small corner of it. Let’s do that!