MARQUETTE – Department of Natural Resources parks in the area are getting a little sprucing up this summer, with the help of some special-needs students, the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Services Agency and Michigan Rehabilitation Services.

All three organizations are playing host to a new pilot program in the area, which takes special needs students and gives them paid work over the summer.

The students, this year ranging in age from 19 to 22, are spending their summer working with park rangers in a few area parks, including Van Riper State park.

“For many of them, it’s their first paid job, so they’ll know what it’s like to get a paycheck and to develop some of those job skills,” said Chad Rowley, MARESA’s coordinator for the project. “Also, (it gives them) an opportunity to develop some references so they can hopefully get paid employment in the future as well.”

Rowley said the summer employment helps the students learn soft skills they’ll need while also giving them on-the-job training.

“They’re developing relationships with the park rangers who do have full-time jobs and they get to work with them,” Rowley said. “To develop those relationships is important. Obviously, the hard skills, whether they’re painting a building or cutting or trimming the trails, or working side-by-side with someone fixing machinery, getting a chance to see things they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

Van Riper Park Supervisor Doug Barry said having the students working along-side his regular staff has been a great experience for both sides of the equation.

“It really makes me feel good that, first of all, we’re able to pay the kids in helping them, but we’re training them to get into the job force and make money for themselves,” Barry said.

Barry said the students have already completed a lot of work in the few weeks the program has been up and running. Everything from painting and staining buildings to clearing trails to working on preventing invasive species has been done by the group of students, who work six hours a day, twice a week.

“They seem to like it. I think they like the variety of tasks,” Barry said. “As we get into the job force, sometimes you get a job where you’re doing the same thing every day, and right now, they’re doing something different every day. And, we’re teaching them those job skills with all those activities.”

The Michigan Rehabilitation Services provides much of the funding for the program, along with the DNR.

MARESA also provides the students with two job coaches, who work with them over the summer to fine tune the skills they’re learning.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.