Summer Jobs Program at Conservation Corps North Bay Helps Youth and the Environment

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Summer Jobs Program at Conservation Youth Corps North Bay Helps Youth and the Environment

Armed with a hoe, Marques Mingus walked through a field in the flood protection area south of Napa searching for such vegetative nasties as the yellow starthistle.

The 18-year-old is a summertime invasive plant battler. A few quick hacks sent a thistle flying to the ground and removed much of its root.

“I want to know if the people who live here will actually see a difference,” he said, looking at the homes of an adjacent neighborhood.

His newly trained eyes see a big difference – several acres with much less yellow starthistle, Harding grass and curly dock. No longer choked with plants belonging to other parts of the world, this patch of seasonal wetlands has room for California native plants such as creeping wild rye to recover.

Mingus is part of the nine-member Napa Youth Ecology Corps, a second-year job training program spearheaded by the Napa-Lake Workforce Investment Board. These young adults ages 18 to 24 don green hard hats, then help Napa County’s environment and themselves.

Napa County and California as a whole have long been under siege from invasive species, be they plants, insects, mammals or fish. Invaders came with Spanish grain shipments in the 1700s. Today, they arrive in the state on ships and cars and a myriad of other ways.

The 800-acre flood project area bounded by the Napa River and Highway 29 south of Napa has been hard hit. Invasive plants such as Harding grass outgrow the natives, bringing about more consequences than just a different look.

“The native grasses produce better habitat for wildlife and insects,” said Shaun Horne of the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. “Harding grass isn’t necessarily a food source for some of the native insects.”

Battling invasive species during the heat of the day and helping the environment is hard work. But it has payoffs for the Youth Ecology Corps members.

For one thing, they have a summer job that pays $9 an hour. They work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for eight weeks, on this particular day under Horne’s supervision.

Mingus wants to be a cook and hopes to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York. For now, he’s glad to be part of the Corps.

“Just to get some general work experience and keep me busy during the summer,” Mingus said.

As a bonus, he’s learning about the natural world. He’s taken out weeds before. Now, when he aims a hoe and sends an invasive species to its death, he knows its name.

Adriana Ortiz, 18, used to look at fields such as the one she stood in and see what she thought was a natural landscape. Now she also sees the invasive plants that don’t belong there.

“It’s good we’re helping,” Ortiz said as she paused from her weed-whacking efforts.

She also sees the personal benefits.

“I like trying new things,” she said. “I’m not sure what I want to do with my life. I like the outdoors. It’s nicer than being locked up in an office.”

Ortiz noted that the Youth Ecology Corps gives her the chance to move onto the California Conservation Corps. But what she’d really like to do is become a special effects makeup artist. Instead of killing vegetative invaders, she might someday be making people look like extraterrestrial invaders for the big screen.

Stephen Dworak, 18, took a hoe to a thistle in the flood protection area.

“I feel it is a way to help the community and the ecosystem where I live and also a way to get used to a job,” he said.

He’s learned about invasive plants, and he’s learned about the hard work that one must put into a job, Dworak said. That’s been a good experience as he waits to enter Napa Valley College and aim toward a career in computer science.

“It’s nice to be out here and kind of get a workout for the day,” Dworak said.

Without the Youth Ecology Corps, most of those invasive plants would remain in the flood project area, Horne said. The district would probably fight only one of the worst, most aggressively spreading plants there – the white-flowered perennial pepperweed.

The Corps will also work on Salvador Creek in Napa and in a St. Helena habitat restoration area. It will spend a week working for the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District.

All of this is in keeping with the Napa-Lake Workforce Investment Board’s mission under the Federal Workforce Investment Act to help develop the local workforce.

Jeri Gill of the Workforce Investment Board said the idea for the local Youth Ecology Corps came from similar programs in Riverside, Marin and Sonoma counties. The youths work in the field for four days a week, then spend the fifth day learning about job interviews, resume writing and other job-seeking skills.

“It’s developing the skills they need, that employers have told us they want,” Gill said.

The Youth Ecology Corps program costs $65,280. Of that, $32,640 comes from the Napa Lake Workforce Investment Board, $28,560 from the Napa County Flood District and $4,080 from the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District.

Author: Barry Eberling