AZTEC — Steady improvements are in the works at Riverside Park, thanks to Aztec youth.

As part of the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps, 15 youth crew workers, four crew chiefs and a project coordinator are working Monday through Thursday this summer on various improvements at the park, as well as on a pair of murals upstream on the concrete pylon supporting the so-called "money-saving" bridge that spans the Animas River. The projects began May 28.

A state grant the city of Aztec received covers the wages of the youth workers. The $100,000 grant pays most teen workers the minimum wage of $7.50 per hour, with a little more for crew leader positions. The city pays for everything else.

From left, Logan Castleman, Jackson Doom and Dana Standridge with the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps paint a mural under the so-called  money-saving
From left, Logan Castleman, Jackson Doom and Dana Standridge with the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps paint a mural under the so-called money-saving bridge, on Tuesday, June 11, 2013, in Aztec. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

On Monday, commissioners approved pursuing the grant money for planned improvements to Hartman Park next summer. The city has until the end of July to submit the grant application.

In March, commissioners approved slightly more than $280,000 for the program's supplies, equipment, training costs and wages for a coordinator to oversee the youth workers. The funding came from general and capital improvement budgets spread over two fiscal years.

Part of the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the Youth Conservation Corps began more than 20 years ago as a way to employ young people in projects on public lands and facilities. Participants learn job skills and gain work experience, as well as practice self-discipline and team work.

The state's Youth Conservation Corps Commission awards funds for the program. Organizations that receive funding must employ people between the ages 14 and 25 for projects that "improve New Mexico's natural resources and provide community benefits of lasting value," according to the state's website.

The city of Aztec has offered the program for more than 10 years, said Ed Kotyk, the city's projects manager.

"The workers are great and really help us make progress improving the usability and enjoyability of city parks and roads," he said.

Projects are assigned based on need. In a recent survey of the city's parks, Riverside Park was rated the most in need of a face lift and repairs, Kotyk said.

Recent Aztec High School graduate Dana Standridge, 18, is spending her second summer painting murals in the Youth Conservation Corps. This week, she and two other art students from Aztec High began painting a mural -- a conceptual street scene of historic downtown that the students began planning in their art class at school this spring.

Along with Jackson Doom, 15, and Logan Castleman, 17, Standridge's crew was making steady progress adding a spectrum of colors and shading to the street scene mural, which features iconic Aztec landmarks -- the Old Soreheads sign, apple orchards, a horse-pulled cart, the Citizen's Bank building and a skate shop.

"It's one of the best jobs I've ever had," Standridge said while applying careful brush strokes of enamel acrylic paint to the pylon. "You get to work as a group with people you know without anyone bossing you around. Plus, it's art. Am I missing something?"

Other nearby pylons show ample evidence of graffiti, as well as the city's efforts to whitewash the spray painted concrete.

But Kotyk isn't too worried about the murals becoming similarly marked.

"We're hoping the taggers will leave the murals alone as a sign of mutual artistic respect," Kotyk said. "So far, they have."

Painting two murals in seven more weeks might seem daunting to a small crew of three, but the young artists were driven less by the deadline and more by the thrill of being able to paint for pay.

"I thought it was too good to be true," Doom said, standing back to check his brushwork. "But this is awesome fun."

Two other crews kept busy nearby on the northern half of Riverside Park, clearing brush and working on other projects, including the eventual replacement of an old asphalt basketball court and the addition of two new volleyball courts and horseshoe pits. They also were digging more than 100 post holes for a new fence.

The workers arrive at 7:30 a.m. and don't leave until after 5 p.m. It's hard work, but the youth involved in the program say they have fun.

"You know just about everybody you're working with, so it's a good time," Castleman said. "Even if you're working in the sun or in the shade."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.