Most students spend their summers flipping burgers at fast-food restaurants, babysitting neighbourhood kids and helping out at the odd landscaping job. But about 70 students working at an old campsite north of Toronto have landed an unusual summer gig: wading through hip-high weeds to clear and sculpt trails; restoring cabins; building decks, stairs and furniture from scraps; and documenting the history of the land.
The teenagers were hired by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to restore Bolton Camp, a site that was once designed as a vacation spot for low-income mothers and their children but has sat abandoned and been vandalized over the past few years. Many of the students are learning on the job, not to mention in the great outdoors, to sand, drill, build stairs and restore habitats, hands-on skills they wouldn't necessarily learn in high school.
"You can see the change. The cabins are starting to be cleaned up and sanded. There's just activity, which is a big thing," said Darryl Gray, a senior manager at the TRCA. "We've struggled with vandalism here for as long as we've owned it. Buildings were getting burned down."
The students, many hired from the Peel region, have been working for more than a month now at Bolton Camp, turning the rundown, overgrown plot of land into what potentially could be an ideal place for community groups and high school classes.
The TRCA bought the 254 acres of land a couple of years ago from a developer. Previously, it was a campsite for low-income families, where mothers received parenting classes and children were led through nature-based activities. After that, it was used by a Montessori school.
On a recent visit to the site, some students were sanding a cabin, carefully removing the graffiti sprayed on the outer walls. Another group was building a new set of stairs for another cabin. And just a few weeks prior, some of them had spent days restoring one kilometre of what used to be a steep, muddy trail.
"Coming out of this, I'm hoping they can have a better understanding of how they can contribute to places like this in their community," Mr. Gray said.
Nadia Zanardi, 17, is part of the team of students restoring cabins. Her previous summer jobs have included babysitting and working at a fast-food restaurant. Already this summer, Ms. Zanardi has been boarding up and cleaning out cabins, sanding and drilling. She said that carpentry may be something she wants to pursue as a back-up career.
"I just learn as I go along. I don't have any training, but they give you training," she said.
The TRCA hopes the land will be used by community groups and small businesses will contribute to the operating costs. Mr. Gray is also in discussions with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and the Peel District School Board to use the space as a satellite campus for woodworking or environmental classes. The TRCA held brainstorming sessions in May with students at local schools to see how the land could be used for their studies and as a recreation area.
"We want to engage the schools and school boards in defining what their needs are," Mr. Gray said.
Andrew Staffiere, 17, said students would be interested in using the land for outdoor activities. He's been spending his summer at Bolton Camp cutting down weeds and pulling roots for a trail, and helping clean out the cabins.
"It's hard work, but it doesn't feel like a job," he said. "We're working, but it's enjoyable work."