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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ecology Youth Corps teens hit the road

A Ecology Youth Corps crew participates in a practice run Monday, June 24, 2019, at Dwight Merkel Sports Complex in north Spokane. (Nina Culver / The Spokesman-Review)
A Ecology Youth Corps crew participates in a practice run Monday, June 24, 2019, at Dwight Merkel Sports Complex in north Spokane. (Nina Culver / The Spokesman-Review)

Ecology Youth Corps teens hit the road this week to spend part of their summer picking up trash along the region’s busiest highways.

A crew of seven spent their Monday morning training at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex in north Spokane, learning how to set up roadside signs and how far apart they should place orange cones to warn drivers of their presence.

It’s the same job teenagers ages 14 to 17 have been doing for more than 40 years. “The Eastern Washington group is the first on to start up this year,” said DOE Eastern region spokesman Ryan Lancaster. “For a lot of them, it’s their first job experience.”

The teens were guided by supervisor Ryan Plouse, who has been leading youth litter teams for several years. There are teams in Spokane, Colville, Chewelah, Deer Park, Othello, Pasco and Moses Lake.

The Spokane groups will cover portions of Highway 395, Highway 2 and Interstate 90. “It’s about 95 percent trash,” Plouse said. “That’s what really counts and matters.”

It isn’t always trash that the teens find at the side of the road. “You find things like cash, that’s a good one,” he said. “We find good camping gear sometimes.”

If the teens find any used needles, they mark them for Plouse to pick up and dispose of in a special container. The teens also aren’t required to pick up plastic bottles full of urine that dot the side of the road, he said. “That’s a biohazard,” he said. “They’re all over the place.”

Plouse estimates that a team can cover about five miles a day and pick up between 25 to 30 bags of trash, which is sorted to pull out recyclable items. “Most of it is run-of-the-mill trash,” he said.

The teens will work for four weeks, then a new group of seven will take over. The program, which runs every summer, ends in mid-August.

The job is outside in all kinds of weather and physically demanding, but it doesn’t seem to deter applicants. “There’s a lot of walking,” Plouse said. “They’re bending down to pick up trash.”

The job may be difficult, but it’s in demand. Plouse said he received 300 applications for 14 positions in Spokane. Teens have to submit two recommendations from teachers and go through an interview process. “We get quality kids,” he said.

Last year the Ecology Youth Corps teams collected 35,740 pounds of trash and 845 pounds of recyclable materials from Spokane County roadsides.

Abby Dallabetta, 17, is on her summer break from Lakeside High School. The Ecology Youth Corps is her first job. “I’m interested in ecology and environmental things,” she said. “I’m fine working outside.”

She also likes the idea of working for a few weeks, then having the rest of the summer off.

She found her first morning of training interesting and educational. “We learned how to put up a roadside sign,” she said. “It’s actually more complicated than it sounds. I’ve learned a lot. There was a lot I didn’t know about what we have to do.”

Wearing her safety vest, helmet and goggles, Dallabetta was ready to go. “I’m excited to go out and pick up trash,” she said.

Blake Fulkerson, 17, attends Cheney High School. Though the Ecology Youth Corps is his first job, he said he’s helped on trash cleanup days with his church. “I’ve been noticing a lot of trash around town,” he said. “I kind of felt like it was my calling.”

He also doesn’t mind spending his days outside. “I enjoy working with nature,” he said. “That was even more reason to sign up. It’s enjoyable to be outside in the fresh air.”

Fulkerson also thinks landing the competitive job will help him in the future. “It’ll be great to have on a résumé and for colleges,” he said.

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