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East Lyme - A new generation of workers is part of the state park system's 100-year history - and its future.
The workers redesigned a 1,000-foot stretch of Rocky Neck State Park's boardwalk, damaged from Superstorm Sandy, so sections of the wooden path can be removed and safely stowed away before a major storm.
They also spruced up trails, built benches and created signs for several parks in the region.
It's all in the spirit of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps that helped build the foundation of the state's parks in the 1930s and 1940s.
"We're seeing that tradition continue with the important work you've been doing in state parks today," said Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Klee at Rocky Neck on Tuesday.
Klee was speaking to two crews of the Connecticut Conservation Corps that repaired damage from Superstorm Sandy at Rocky Neck, Bluff Point State Park in Groton and Airline Trail State Park in Thompson over the past year. Other members of the corps, which the state modeled after the original federal program, helped restore parks over the last year in the western part of the state.
DEEP, the state Department of Labor, two Workforce Investment Boards within the state, and EASTCONN, a regional educational service center, collaborated on the Connecticut Conservation Corps program to repair Sandy damage. A National Emergency Grant for Superstorm Sandy from the U.S. Department of Labor funded the program.
On Tuesday, corps members walked one by one to the podium under the pavilion by Rocky Neck's East Beach to shake the commissioner's hand and receive a certificate of appreciation.
Neftali Irizarry of Putnam was one of the workers recognized Tuesday. He helped reconstruct, section by section, a stretch of the wooden boardwalk atop the beach at Rocky Neck that Sandy had battered. Rather than having pieces bolted together, the reconstructed path features large, detachable sections that can be removed from the beach in anticipation of a major storm.
Irizarry expressed gratitude toward his crew leaders and said he enjoyed his experience so much he wants to apply to be a seasonal worker in the parks system. He said working on the boardwalk was a hands-on activity that helped him build relationships with his co-workers.
"I feel proud and excited to be part of something that's going to be there for many years," he added.
Tamara Thatcher of Plainfield, who helped build signs and fix trails in Thompson and East Lyme, said she enjoyed the people, staying active outdoors and giving back to the community.
She said the experience helped her learn more about the parks system. For example, she learned that the trails she liked to walk a few years ago in Thompson once held railroad tracks.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a national program that President Franklin D. Roosevelt designed to help the country during the Great Depression, had 22 camps in the state. Workers built trails, roads, fire towers and picnic shelters at largely undeveloped state parks, said Klee.
The CCC ended in 1942, but in recent years the state has modeled new work initiatives after the federal program, according to the DEEP.
Veterans and long-term unemployed adults over the age of 18 were eligible for the state program that focused on Superstorm Sandy repair. The crew members learned first-aid, CPR and construction safety, among other skills.
The program helps provide technical, communication and problem-solving skills that will be helpful for future jobs, said Kim Andy, manager of Community Advocacy at the state Department of Labor.
Virginia Sampietro, director of strategic development for the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, thanked the members for their efforts to benefit the parks - working even through the tough winter.
Richard Tariff, director of adult education programs for EASTCONN, also remarked on the crew members' perseverance through the program. The workers used hand warmers or bug spray to brave the outdoors in all conditions.
DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen encouraged the workers to show their families the mark they left on the park system.
"You have a lot to be proud of, and we thank you," she said.