Mary Ellen's Blog: Conservation Corps Respond

Washington Conservation Corps responds to Hurricane Sandy

Originally Posted on the Corporation for Nationl and Community Service Blog

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast coast during the last days of October 2012, more than a dozen Service and Conservation Corps programs across the country were already mobilizing to help with the relief effort. Some Corps came from as far away as Montana, Washington, and Utah, while other programs served in their own backyard, in New York and New Jersey.

The extensive training Corpsmembers receive in Service and Conservation Corps programs prepares them to serve in numerous capacities in response to a wide range of natural and manmade disasters. Many Corpsmembers are trained in volunteer management and learn the professional skills needed to organize relief efforts and interact with victims and local responders in partnership with AmeriCorps’ Disaster Services Team.Corpsmembers cleared debris and downed trees, cleaned muck and mold from flooded buildings, and helped homeowners salvage personal belongings. They distributed emergency supplies, managed evacuation shelters, and, through their presence, offered reassurance that help had arrived and things would get done. In the two years since the storm, young people serving in Corps have completed an extensive amount of work to make homes livable, make parks and public lands safe for recreation, and make communities more resilient to the threat of future storms. Corps have re-planted damaged gardens and thousands of trees; planted many new trees to reduce erosion; and removed invasive species that took root in the months immediately following the storm. 

Some Corpsmembers gain wildland firefighting credentials, chainsaw operation certification, and wilderness first aid training, thus allowing them to respond to forest fires. Because Corps have the ability to travel where disaster strikes and bring their own disaster response and safety equipment, they can provide some of the earliest and most comprehensive service. Corpsmembers also have the land management skills to help damaged ecosystems recover once immediate needs are met.

Within just the past few months, more than 400 Corpsmembers responded to devastating forest firesin California, nearly 70 responded to forest fires in Washington state, and many others have responded to flooding in Missouri and Minnesota. In recent memory, young people serving in Corps assisted in the relief efforts after the landslides in Washington, the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX, and flooding in Galena, AK.

When young people join a Corps program, they choose to serve. They make the decision to use their time and talents to help others. They embody an ethic of service that makes them extraordinary participants in disaster relief efforts. Corpsmembers are committed to making a difference and giving themselves entirely to the cause of putting damaged communities back together and helping families return to a normal way of life.  

The experience of helping someone who has just lost everything can be heart-rending, but it is also a chance to learn about yourself. One particularly telling reflection of the service experience is that when talking to Corpsmembers who served in disaster areas, you often hear some variation of the same phrase: “The people I helped did so much more for me than I could have possibly done for them.”

Mary Ellen's Blog: Making Homes Eco-Friendly and Economical

I hope that wherever you are right now is cooler and less humid than it is here in Washington, D.C. The air is so thick outside that just walking down the block can be exhausting. Many of us find relief in air-conditioned offices and homes, but not everyone has this luxury. Even for those of us who have amenities like a modern climate control system, keeping the A/C on is sometimes accompanied with the guilt that natural resources are going to waste for our comfort. Not to mention, cooling a building can get extremely expensive during the summer months.

Of course, there are many ways to save money by saving energy and conserving natural resources. Ideally, everyone would employ energy and cost-saving measures to heat, cool and light their homes and businesses, but many people simply don’t have the knowledge or resources to do this. It’s a big task to educate the public about ways to save electricity, and it’s an even bigger task to make sure that people of all backgrounds and income-levels have access to newer, more efficient appliances and fixtures, but Corps are up to the challenge

Dozens of Service and Conservation Corps throughout the country operate energy efficiency programs. These programs look different from one Corps to next, but they follow a similar design: Corpsmembers educate homeowners and renters about simple ways to save energy and money, and often provide the tools and services to make light fixtures, appliances, windows and HVAC systems more energy efficient. The end result: homes use less electricity; families save money; and a cohort of young adults enrolled in Corps programs have the credentials and experience to pursue careers in green industries.  

Home performance testing by The Sustainability Institute in Charleston, SC.


In Charleston, South Carolina, The Sustainability Institute’s Energy Conservation Corps trains young adults in building performance while simultaneously offering home weatherization services and energy-efficient upgrades to low-income households throughout Charleston County. Corpsmembers learn green building techniques and weatherization skills, visit the homes of qualified residents to conduct performance diagnostics tests, and then apply their skills to make the quality home repairs and upgrades that lead to lower energy bills. The program, which is funded through both private and public dollars, fully services more than 25 homes a year. Families often see more than a 30 percent reduction in their electricity bills, and Corpsmembers leave the program with new credentials to add to their resumes. In fact, one Corpsmember even went on to start his own weatherization business.

In Baltimore, the Project Lightbulb program, operated by Civic Works, sends Corpsmembers into low and moderate income homes in select neighborhoods to provide residents with information and free supplies to increase home efficiency and reduce energy costs. Corpsmembers install CFL light bulbs, low flow faucet aerators, and a low flow shower head. They also insulate the home’s hot water heater and accompanying hot water pipes, and offer residents helpful tips to reduce energy-consumption. So far, over 4,000 Baltimore City households have benefited from the program.

In New York City, Green City Force Corpsmembers focus on increasing energy-savings in Housing Authority properties. Four days a week, Corpsmembers participate in environmentally-focused service projects ranging from painting rooftops white to decrease indoor temperatures, to visiting low-income residents to discuss their eligibility for free Energy Star appliances and other state-managed energy efficiency programs. One day per week, Corpsmembers participate in Green City Academy, an academic and technical training program through which Corpsmembers prepare for college earn the certifications necessary to do entry-level energy efficiency work.

Solar panel installation by KUPU in Hawaii.


There are many other Corps throughout the country operating similar programs to reduce energy consumption and conserve resources. Some Corps install solar panels, some install water-efficient sinks and toilets in low-income homes, and some Corps build rainwater collection systems to bring natural irrigation to parks and farms. The best part about these improvements is that they’re made possible by dedicated young Corpsmembers. Buildings and communities become more efficient and sustainable, resource usage and utility bills go down, and a population of young adults learns important technical skills, gains self-confidence, and prepares to become the next ‘green workforce.’ When Corps have the support to operate energy and resource efficiency programs, everybody wins. 

Mary Ellen's Blog: Celebrate – and Protect – the Great Outdoors All Year Round


June 26, 2014

It’s been a busy few weeks here at The Corps Network - but busy in a great way. As many people in the conservation world know, June is Great Outdoors Month: a celebration of nature and outdoor recreation, as well as a call to action to protect the parks, trails and waterways we love.

The Corps Network recognized GO Month this year by trying something new; hosting a Day of Service right here in Washington, DC. It was exciting to see our partners, as well as Corpsmembers and Corps staff from so many different programs, come together to volunteer. Teams painted fences at the FDR memorial, collected litter along the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River, and readied Fort Dupont Park for new exercise equipment. In other words, we got outside, got our hands dirty, and did a small part to improve the community. Our service symbolized the great things Corps do every day to protect public places.

Out in the Corps world, young people paint, clean and build every day!   They paint outdoor murals and freshen up historic and culturally significant structures. They run recycling operations for large cities. They construct homes, build bridges, and cut new trails in our most beloved parks. Corps programs connect young people with the environment and the community in a way few other experiences can offer. Corps projects are tangible and meaningful, leading Corpsmembers to feel empowered by what they can accomplish. When Corpsmembers work to protect and improve a place, when they spend many hours making a place cleaner and safer, they develop a sense of responsibility for keeping other natural spaces clean and safe, too.  

GO Month is a time to reflect on the way we interact with nature. It’s a time to think about the future of our natural spaces, and consider what we can do to make our relationship with the great outdoors stronger and more sustainable. Working to expand Corps programs is one way we can help ensure that America’s parks and waters stay beautiful and healthy for future generations. 

This Wednesday, as part of the GO Month events, a panel of thought leaders from the conservation world gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss ways to “build the next generation of diverse nature-smart leaders.” As several experts mentioned, Corps are an excellent tool for cultivating the next cohort of conservation champions. The next generation of Americans is largely urban and consists of people representing a huge diversity of cultures, races and ethnicities. Corps programs are important for how they offer all young people the opportunity to get outside and feel ownership over our country’s public lands. While the environmental movement has historically been led by white men, the modern environmental movement includes all of us. Last year, 28% of the Corpsmembers enrolled in programs of The Corps Network were African American; 11% percent were Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islanders; 9% percent identified as “other” and 21% identified as Latino. The next conservationists definitely won’t all be male; 35% of Corpsmembers enrolled in 2013 were women. 

There are only a few days left in June, but we can – and must – celebrate the great outdoors throughout the year. Corps programs certainly work all-year-round, and they absolutely don’t stop for things like rain or snow, but they can’t work without us. GO Month is an excellent way to raise the visibility of conservation issues and promote initiatives like the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps and the 50 for the 50th campaign, but we can’t let this visibility fade. For our parks and our young people, we need to keep the momentum going. 

Mary Ellen's Blog: Graduation Rate, Not the Dropout Rate

June 5, 2014

It’s graduation season! High school seniors across the country can celebrate the completion of 12 years of essays, tests and projects. They can rejoice in knowing that, with a diploma in hand, their futures are bright. After all, every graduate is one step closer to a college education, a good job and independence.

Unfortunately, not every student makes it to graduation. Though the dropout rate has declined over the past decade, it still hovers around seven percent. For minority populations, the situation is even bleaker; nearly one in two minority students does not graduate with his or her classmates. Lacking a high school diploma or GED means fewer options in the workforce and limited opportunities to earn degrees or credentials that could lead to higher-paying jobs. The sad truth is that dropping out of high school can mean a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet. Even sadder is the fact that many students who leave school don’t leave because they’re “lazy” or caught up in the wrong crowd; it’s because they feel like they don’t have any options.

Civicorps - Oakland, CA


Out of the approximately 7,000 students who dropout every school day, there are many young parents who need to work to support their families. There are teenagers who have no homes and no support network. There are many students who are new to this country and don’t receive the ESL services they need, as well as students who could benefit from one-on-one attention, but get lost in the shuffle. In other words, there are hundreds of thousands of very smart, capable young adults who choose or need to leave high school. These individuals are full of potential – they just need to have access to the right opportunities.  

Corps offer an alternative. Young people who enter a Corps without a high school diploma or GED have the chance to go to school while also developing tangible job skills. Corpsmembers attend class for part of the day, or part of the week, and then go out into the community to gain hands-on work experience by participating in service projects. For their service, Corpsmembers receive a stipend and often earn scholarship money. Essentially, the Corps model allows young people to make money while furthering their education.

Conservation Corps North Bay - Marin County, CA

Corps generally offer smaller class sizes and more personal attention. Most programs also have onsite counseling staff or relationships with local organizations that can help students with everything from transportation costs to mental health services and childcare. Not to mention, there are dedicated staff members at many Corps programs who were once Corpsmembers themselves; they understand and can accommodate the kinds of issues their students deal with outside the classroom.  

Last year, out of nearly 26,000 young people enrolled in programs of The Corps Network, nearly 60 percent came from families below the poverty line and some 30 percent were not in school and lacked a high school diploma or GED upon enrollment. These young people bring different, often additional, challenges than your average high school student, but Corps offer ways to ways to work with these challenges. The facts speak for themselves: in 2013, of the 10,500 young people who entered Corps without a high school credential, nearly 60 percent received a high school credential during their Corps enrollment, or enrolled in another diploma or GED program. Additionally, Corpsmembers earned nearly 12,600 professional certifications or credentials.

Education doesn’t end after a Corpsmember receives his or her diploma. Many Corps provide comprehensive college preparation and support students throughout their transition to postsecondary programs. Some programs have relationships with local community colleges, allowing students to pursue a postsecondary degree while continuing to serve at the Corps. As said by Candace Washington, a graduate of Civicorps in Oakland, CA who is currently enrolled in college, “I started the Corps without a diploma. I believe that just being able to be a part of Civicorps has made me stronger, helped me better serve my community, and has opened my eyes to all possibilities. My journey does not end here; this is just my stepping stone…I plan on graduating five years from now with my Masters in Psychology and starting my career. I am going to jump over any obstacles that may come my way.” 

So during this graduation season, let’s not think about the dropout rate; let’s think about the graduation rate. Let’s focus on the positive and think about ways we can get more young people in cap and gown. Corps are one way to do that. 

Mary Ellen's Blog: The Next Generation of Historic Preservationists

April 7, 2014

By now, many of us who are familiar with the conservation world have heard the numbers:  as of 2012, a full 38% of the Department of the Interior’s workforce, 35% of the Department of Agriculture’s workforce and 25% of the Bureau of Land Management’s workforce became eligible for retirement, and these numbers only continue to grow. Fortunately, every day thousands of young people across the country learn about conservation and develop green skills through Service and Conservation Corps programs. By providing teens and young adults the opportunity to serve outdoors, Corps foster the growth of America’s next – and more diverse – generation of environmental stewards.  

 By training the future protectors of our natural spaces, Corps help ensure that our parks and waterways are preserved for generations of American’s to enjoy. Now, through The Corps Network’s partnership with The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Corps will also help ensure that America’s historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes will also be preserved for future generations. 

Right now, Corpsmembers with the first Hands On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew are working alongside preservation experts of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service to restore the Skyland Stable at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. At the completion of this project, the newly-repaired 1930’s stable will connect the public to over 200 miles of equestrian trails, and the first HOPE Crew cohort will be trained in craft skills and important preservation techniques.   

The Skyland Stable restoration project is just the beginning: the goal is to complete 100 HOPE Crew projects throughout the country by 2016. Working with the Trust, the Park Service and private funders, members of The Corps Network will have the opportunity to engage their Corpsmembers in the preservation of structures and places that are important to the history of our country.

Corps already provide much needed help in addressing the billions of dollars of backlogged maintenance work in our national, state and local parks. HOPE Crews represent another way that Corps will make a real and lasting impact on the places that define our communities. For decades, Corps have helped young people gain skills in land and water management. They have helped Corpsmembers understand and appreciate our connection with the natural world. It’s exciting to know that now, by serving in HOPE Crews alongside craft professionals, Corpsmembers will also gain skills in historic preservation and learn the importance of our connection with the past. I’m excited to be a part of the Corps movement as Corps play a larger role in developing not only the next generation of conservationists, but also the generation of preservationists.