By Darrin Youker, Reading Eagle
Chae-Young Yhm of South Korea is spending part of her summer vacation breaking rocks in Berks County.
Yhm, a 15-year-old from Seoul, is helping to build trails at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site as a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association based in New Hampshire.
For Yhm, who grew up in South Korea's capital city, three weeks in rural Union Township provided her first exposure to camping and forests.
"I was born in the city," said Yhm, who is studying at a Connecticut boarding school. "I wanted to see what it was like to be outside and to camp."
For six weeks each summer, the nonprofit Student Conservation Association assigns teenage volunteers to national parks and sites across the country to perform maintenance projects and assist staff.
Two adult supervisors are leading a crew of six students at Hopewell. Students put in about eight hours of work each day in the woods outside the main visitors center, said crew leader Patricia Blauvelt, 25, Chicago.
The volunteers are camping at Hopewell, and each teen has a duty at camp, including cooking, Blauvelt said.
Hopewell, which does not have a trail crew, counts on the young volunteers to perform upgrades, said crew leader Alisha Allen, 24, Alabama.
"We are the trail crew for the summer," she said.
For the past three weeks, students have focused their efforts on a section of the Buzzard Trail, which runs between Union Township and Chester County.
The work in the woods, which started in late July, was the first exposure Jenny Goldstein had to the rigors of trail building.
"I never went walking on trails before," said Goldstein, 16, Essex County, N.J. "I've come out of here with a newfound respect."
Years of rainfall have eroded portions of the trail, so the crew is working to build stone structures to divert water and help prevent further damage, The work is straightforward and labor intensive.
Working on their hands and knees, the teens dig ditches and put heavy stones in place. In low spots, crushed stones are placed on the trail and covered with a fresh layer of dirt. The stones will help with drainage, Blauvelt said.
Besides providing a valuable service, the students are learning the value of teamwork and conservation, she said.
"Our main goal is fostering a relationship between youth and the environment," Blauvelt said. "We want them to forge a connection with parks."
For Yhm, who has spent much of her time muscling stones into place and breaking others with a sledgehammer, seeing the trail come together brings a sense of satisfaction.
"Someone will be walking here one day and see our work," she said. "It's going to make their day."