Landscape to Leadership

Montana Conservation Corps uses Healthy Kids, Healthy Families grant to expand youth program, impact on teens.

Never judge a book solely by its cover.

It’s a phrase Jono McKinney, CEO and president of the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), has heard often and believes personifies the organization he leads.

A snapshot of MCC no doubt tells a vibrant story. It may feature chainsaw-wielding crews removing conifers to clear a hiking trail or a group of smiling kids in hard hats helping to improve wildlife habitat. The sweat equity behind completing more than 200 projects each year across Montana is easily captured in a photo. Especially with Montana’s majestic beauty serving as a picturesque backdrop to everything MCC does.

The real magic, McKinney insists, doesn’t just come from those finished projects, illustrated and promoted with a single click of a camera. The core of MCC is the transformation that takes place in the more than 500 young people who participate in its programs each year.

“Montana Conservation Corps is first and foremost an organization dedicated to developing young people,” McKinney said. “The work we do is a means and not an end for our mission. What we really do is develop future leaders who will be healthier and more active in their communities.”

Developing young people into leaders isn’t easily captured in a single moment. It’s a process, one that has the natural ebbs and flows, highs and lows, of working with teenagers.

Expanding its outreach to young people prompted MCC to apply for a $50,000 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® grant – one of BCBSMT’s signature community investment initiatives designed to improve the health and wellness of Montana children and families. Healthy Kids, Healthy Families grants focus on five key social pillars: physical activity, nutrition, disease prevention and management, supporting safe environments, and suicide prevention. The successful MCC application strongly represented each of those ideals.

The organization plans to use the $50,000 award to expand its youth programs and increase the number of teens served in 2017 to 300, along with a host of other activities that will support that effort.

The more participants in MCC youth programs, the more people can benefit, both directly and indirectly. It’s a lot of work, but what also happens during those long days is that young people grow as individuals. And, of course, the more individuals there are in MCC programs means more projects can be completed each year throughout the state.

That leads back to the cover photos of MCC and the projects that are completed each year. During his two four-week stints, Johnson’s crews cross-cut logs off a trail in the Gates of the Mountains, helped with BLM fencing projects in the Pryors, maintained trails and the pass at the Rocky Mountain Front on Headquarters Creek and marked fence to prevent sage grouse from being injured. Any image from those projects would create an inviting book cover for MCC.

McKinney believes that those cover photos, along with each story of personal transformation, create a lasting impression MCC has on every teenager after they spend time in Montana’s wilderness.

“Your Montana Conservation Corps experience is really just the beginning of what we’re about,” McKinney said. “Our success is best measured when our graduates put those skills and awareness to work in their daily lives.”

To learn more about the MCC, please visit mtcorps.org. For more information on expeditions, or on how to become a crew leader, email apply@mtcorps.org.