“We have come a long way from our trash-picking days in the neighborhood,” said Gary Purfield, community service coordinator for the Chester County Juvenile Probation Department.
It’s not that Purfield thinks removing roadside litter isn’t worthwhile, but he wants the teens he supervises to take away more meaningful skills from their community service work. “We are working to promote accountability, develop competencies, and build self-esteem. At the same time, the youth provide meaningful service to the community.”
Since 1999, Chester County’s Juvenile Probation program has partnered with nonprofits like Natural Lands. These partnerships provide valuable assistance to community organizations and provide juvenile offenders the chance to repair, symbolically, the harm they have caused to their victim and their community. Juvenile offenders install and repair hiking trails, make benches, plant trees, and cut back invasive plants. They are building bridges—both literal and figurative.
“These kids have been great to work with,” said Darin Groff, preserve manager at Binky Lee Preserve, where the partnership program began many years ago. “I’ve even had a few of them give extra hours because they wanted to finish a project. We get them out there building something—making something real that will last, like a bench along a trail—and they take away skills, pride, and a sense of accomplishment.”
At ChesLen Preserve, a team of six probationers, supervisors, and staff built a suspension bridge over a tributary stream. The ambitious project took weeks to complete, with staff and youth working side by side in the summer heat.
“Last year, 390 juveniles in our program served more than 18,000 hours,” said Purfield. “Natural Lands was our first trusted partnership. Because of it, the program has expanded to what it is today with 50 participating sites across Chester County.”
Marian Moskowitz, the Chester County Commissioner who serves on the County’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board, praises the partnership with Natural Lands, and especially the way that the connection has expanded. “You know when a program like this is right: when the results match, and even exceed, the original intentions, and it continues and grows. This is the right approach to community service because it is more meaningful and lasting to the kids, and it benefits everyone who visits these beautiful preserves.”
Work at ChesLen this summer will be funded in part by a grant from The Kulicke Fund to support Natural Lands’ work connecting youth and nature.