BENNINGTON -- A local forestry program through the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center is teaching students lifelong skills in lumber and forest management, and how it feels to give back to the community.
High school juniors and seniors enrolled in the two-year Forestry and Heavy Equipment class are helping to light a fire in some of the colder homes in our area by using the skills they have learned to benefit local residents through Vermont's "Wood Warms" program.
Led by instructor and forestry expert David Dence, more than a dozen ‘Forestry I' students from area schools including Mount Anthony Union, Arlington Memorial and Burr and Burton Academy gathered outside the Bennington state office complex on Tuesday, using a backhoe and chainsaws to sort and cut donated logs into manageable firewood.
"Everything we do through the program is within the community, and benefits our local people," said Dence, who has been teaching the class for eight years, and is himself a graduate of the forestry program.
"We're taking what they learned in the classroom and moving it out to the lab where they are learning practical, hands-on skills," said Dence, also the owner of Greater Heights Tree and Land Management, located in Pownal.
The wood will be used by families and elderly residents who may be struggling to afford home heating costs, but who do not qualify for standard government heating assistance programs.
"I feel like we're doing things to help people out," said Mount Anthony junior Dylan Russell. "You get to learn a little something new, and be outside working."
Students work in coordination with probationers who are serving community service time for non-violent offenses, with the latter group stacking and cording the wood for distribution.
"A lot of the guys have really benefited from this, they get to see where it goes and see that they are helping people," said John Cook, work team supervisor for the Bennington County Probation and Parole Office.
"They work side by side," said Cook, of students and participants in the work team who contribute to the multi-organizational effort.
"They exchange stories -- from the guys on my end it's more of a cautionary tale, a ‘Don't do what I did,' type of thing."
So far this year, 12 cords of wood have already been cut and delivered to wood-burning residences.
"We do it differently here than almost anywhere else in the state. We process the wood and we deliver it," said Cook, noting that other towns may participate in Wood Warms by granting access to areas of state land, but do not offer assistance.
In addition to private donations, Bennington has received nearly twenty cords of wood from the Green Mountain National Forest, after officials realized that wood was allegedly being illegally culled.
"In this case we got very lucky," said Cook, who estimates that during a moderate winter a cord of wood could last as long as one month.
"For a lot of people a month is a big deal. For people receiving this help, many of them are folks who are holding part-time jobs, some are single mothers trying to make ends meet or senior citizens."
The Wood Warms initiative has roots in Bennington dating back to 2008, when now-retired Bennington County Forester Jim White first suggested implementing the idea locally, to better utilize Vermont's natural resources.
"Jim was instrumental in helping us get the funds to get started," said Cook, counting a log-splitter, log-lift and a splitter table among the pieces of equipment which are used in the process.
Maneuvering full-size trees and measuring them prior to cutting, the Forestry I class, made up of mostly juniors, worked through heavy snowfalls on their final day of the project.
"These kids are all really hard workers, they really like helping," said teaching assistant Ashley Coon, who braved Tuesday's cold weather in pink Carhartt pants.
Mario Mazzola and Andrew Burout, both seniors at Mount Anthony and students in the Forestry II class, were on hand to help the underclassmen if necessary.
"This program helps people when they need help the most," said Burout. "If they have a tough month or something they don't have to worry about a cord of wood."
Mount Anthony junior Chris Grover is already considering his future career-field, and said the skills he learned in Dence's class have given him more options to consider. "It's a good program," said Grover. "It makes me think about what I want to do next."
Dence counts all of his students as succeeding in the program, with approximately half going on to secondary school and half moving into the workforce with an employable skillset, often including a chainsaw certification and a commercial driver license.
"The program is set up to help them succeed, and all of them do," said Dence. For more information on the Career Development Center, visit www.svcdc.org; for more information on how to benefit from Wood Warms, contact the Bennington Rutland Opportunity Council by visiting www.broc.org.
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