Building a Fresh Start

Thirty minutes outside of Madison, a hard working crew is building a new Dane County park.

They’re building trails through the woods, clearing honeysuckle, buckthorn and other invasive species to make gently sloping paths overlooking the lake. They’re clearing garbage and old farm machinery from the woods. They’re planting cover crops and the seeds to farm a one-acre plot. They’re gutting the old farmhouse, preparing the place for the next step in the planning process.

This crew building a new county park from the ground up is made up entirely of young people looking for a second opportunity and a new lease on life.

They split their days between work crews and traditional school days. And they use words like rewarding, thrilling, life-changing awesome, and unreal to describe their educational experience at Operation Fresh Start.

For over 40 years, Operation Fresh Start has provided job skills, training, and high school diplomas to Madison young people. Last year, Eat for Equity Madison hosted a community feast in support of Operation Fresh Start. And OFS invited us to visit the park project and meet their crew.

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We drove the trailer up a long driveway and pulled up alongside an old stone farmhouse, and found the Operation Fresh Start crew was immediately welcoming. We noticed how open they were with their personal stories, how generous they were with their time to the two people and a dog who just showed up, and started asking questions.

The crew included Carmela, a mom to three kids who hopes to become a welder or a nail technician after she gets her degree. Carmela was the first and only woman on the team, until Kathreen joined and they dubbed themselves the “A-1 team.” Being in the woods is a rare chance for her to be alone, and helps her let off steam.

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For Shawn, these woods remind him of the woods of his childhood home. He spent day after day roaming through this woods by himself. Back then, he didn’t have friends, but the woods, that was his therapy. After a breakdown, he would go into the woods, and after a few hours, he’d come back and he’d be healed.

Dalton, a young man trying to break out as a hip hop artist, engaged us visitors with questions and light ribbing. “What do you think of all this?” he asked. “You know, we would have gotten even further [on trail work] if you hadn’t come,” he teased.

It’s clear they’re learning how  it feels to do good, hard work and serve their community. They learn on the job about how math comes in handy when you’re figuring out the grade of a sustainable trail. Physical education isn’t just a half hour class – it’s the whole day. They learn about what it takes to build something together.

Their crew leader, Mike, said, “Not only are they growing food and learning about the environment…they’re serving something bigger than themselves.” And that’s something we’re proud to support in some small way – and something we feel lucky to have witnessed as part of the tour.