LEAVENWORTH — I work for three national fish hatcheries and a conservation office, forming the Leavenworth Fisheries Complex. We work to raise healthy fish to support conservation efforts and sport and tribal fisheries, study our results to reinforce or change our methods, participate in restoration projects, research native fish, cooperate with partners and much more.

We also bring volunteers onto projects — and it can transform lives.

One of our partner organizations worked on several different projects with the Complex this year: SkillSource. This program operates in four locations in Eastern Washington and offers education and training for unemployed and low-skilled workers in cooperation with school districts, community colleges and employers. The EcoStewards program brings in young adults on field-based projects, helping them build skills they can use and introduces them to new potential career paths. In many cases these are careers or fields the program participants were not even aware existed.

One young woman, Olivia Robson, was startled to find she really liked working outdoors on habitat restoration. “At first, I thought I wanted to be a nail technician, or a pre-school teacher,” she told me. “But now I want to be an outdoor educator.” During the course of the SkillSource program, Olivia has worked at two of our national fish hatcheries, cleared brush on hatchery trails, pulled up invasive weeds, assisted with Kids in the Creek (KITC, a field-based, hands-on education program managed by Cascadia Conservation District) — “everything helpful,” she said.

Olivia said she didn’t know she would like teaching kids about animals and plants, which she did at Kids in the Creek. SkillSource participants attended the first day of KITC as students, then served as assistants the following two days. Last year was the first time SkillSource participated in this program, and reception by the instructors was overwhelmingly favorable. Marjie Lodwick, education ranger for the Complex, said, “[They] added a great element to the program. ... It was awesome to have the extra help at the stations, and the station leaders really enjoyed how the SkillSource students transitioned from students to station assistants to station leads over the three days.”

SkillSource students not only learned to teach, but helped with other practical aspects of running a field-based education program, like sorting waders, hauling equipment and packing up gear. The students were ready to help with anything, both hardworking and humorous.

One of Olivia’s favorite activities was camping with the crew. “I’ve camped before, but not so late in the year, and not for work,” she said, describing evenings with hot drinks, telling stories at the end of a long day spent wading in creeks.

Seth Wendzel, experiential education coordinator for WSU, Chelan/Douglas County Extension, agrees with her choice of favorite. His favorite projects are the ones that involve camping, fishing and life skills, and especially projects that students get to return to. “It’s more rewarding when they return to the same place and see the results,” he said.

We look forward to the return of SkillSource students next year, and to the results they achieve for us.

Julia Pinnix is visitor services manager for Leavenworth Fisheries Complex.