2015 Corpsmember of the Year Harris Cox featured in San Francisco Chronicle article

Living in the Present Trumps Man's Bad Past

San Francisco Chronicle - Chip Johnson
February 16, 2015


Determined to keep a promise to his dying grandmother, Harris Cox came to Oakland’s Civicorps program at age 21, in search of a high school diploma.

Since then, he’s accomplished that and much more.

This month, Cox, 24, was one of five people honored as a Corpsmember of the Year by the National Corps Network, an organization with programs like Civicorps in more than 100 U.S. cities and more than 25,000 participants. He accepted the award and spoke at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C.

The organization offers job training, education, guidance and fellowship to young people, ages 18 to 26, whose lives have been derailed by bad choices, a lack of options or sheer circumstance. And it’s clear from Cox’s life story that he never really had a chance until he joined the organization.

When he was 6, an older brother who suffered from mental problems doused the boy’s shirt with rubbing alcohol and set him on fire. Cox was badly burned and spent the next six years in and out of medically induced comas while receiving skin grafts from his neck to his legs.

He awoke angry, scarred and alone from what he described as an endless walk in search of his own body. The day after he awoke, his grandmother, his rock, slipped into a coma and died.

Growing up in Merced, Cox started dealing drugs and running the streets. He was angry at the world, ashamed of his scars and plagued by nightmares from the childhood assault. He pondered suicide on more than one occasion.

“I wanted to die so bad that I picked on anyone who I believed was willing to take my life,” Cox said in an interview.

By the time he was 16, Cox had been shot in the face and a violent assault had earned him a three-year stint in a juvenile detention facility. His behavior soon led authorities to move Cox to an adult prison, he said.

When he was released at age 18, he followed his high school sweetheart to Oakland, where he resumed life as a drug dealer and became a father.

He started at Civicorps the same way all members begin: hard work, non-negotiable work hours and mandatory classroom instruction.

Clearing encampment

Cox was initially suspicious and distrustful, but tasked with work duties and armed with resources and camaraderie, he began to respond.

He began to thrive in and out of the classroom. Alongside fellow corps members, Cox built firebreaks and rock dams, and cut down trees for $1,200 a month. Then one day he came face to face with his own past when his crew was called on to clear out a homeless encampment.

“I felt guilty ’cause I know what it’s like to sleep on a bus bench or in a shelter, not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” he said. “I felt like we should be helping them.”

So while his colleagues cleared the camp, Cox went to a nearby grocery store and bought sandwiches for everyone.

Through Civicorps, Cox also found a way to quell the demons that dredge up the long-ago assault, plaguing his sleep and leaving him drenched in sweat.

About a year ago, Cox was introduced to the practice of mindfulness, a mental exercise that teaches people to focus on the present.

“Mindfulness creates space between your emotions and what you do,” said Laurie Grossman, an instructor who mentors Cox. “It’s awareness of the present moment without judgment.”

He took mindfulness courses at Kaiser Permanente and interned with Grossman, who teaches at Inner Explorer, an Oakland program.

In May, Cox started teaching mindfulness to kids at Reach Academy, an Oakland public school. This week, he starts a new gig teaching mindfulness to middle-school children in San Lorenzo.

Hoping to become pilot

“These kids are going through some of the same things,” Cox said. “You have to learn to live day to day, regardless of the household or the mom and dad you have to weather.”

When he’s not teaching or working, Cox is studying at Merritt College and hopes to learn to pilot an airplane.

It’s a fitting goal for a young man whose personal life has taken off.

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San Diego Man Casts Away Past Self-Doubt at Corps, But Brings Friendship and Stewardship Onshore

The following story showcases one of The Corps Network's 2015 Award Winners. Jeremiah Ruiz will be recognized as a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year at The Corps Network National Conference in February. More stories for our 2015 Award Winners can be found here.

Following his parents’ divorce at age 12, Jeremiah Ruiz began to cope with his disappointment and stress by overeating. Around this time he also came to the realization that he was gay. Coming from a conservative religious family who did not approve of homosexuality only added to his struggle over the coming years. By high school, Jeremiah was 335 pounds. Being bullied because of both his weight and sexuality, Jeremiah’s self-esteem eroded. He dropped out of high school during his senior year and contemplated suicide.

Next, Jeremiah started working at a golf course. Jeremiah says that “working at the golf club wasn’t easy and the pay rate was minimal. It took me six years to realize that education is actually very important and without it, it can be very hard to succeed in the workforce.”

Jeremiah’s story took a positive turn when he heard about Urban Corps of San Diego County. He says that his experience while in the Corps improved his self-esteem, helped him gain important work skills and etiquette, and set him on the path to eventually earning his high school diploma. “It wasn’t easy, but I have finally learned to accept the person I am, and my Corps experience was a big part of how I did it.”

Jeremiah feels that the Corps model and the services the Corps provided were tailored to his needs and significantly contributed to his turn-around. He says that “It had been many years since I was in school so at first I was really nervous that I would fail again. But the classes were different than at my high school; they were smaller and I got a lot more one on one assistance.” Jeremiah also notes that the physical training exercises the Corps experience includes on a daily basis and the healthy meal options they provide assisted him in losing weight and reaching his desired size. He says, however, that the “feeling of acceptance” that the Corps staff and his peers provided was by far the biggest positive impact the program had upon him. But while the Corps experience impacted Jeremiah for the better, the impact he has had on others is also tremendous.

Jeremiah’s case manager at Urban Corps explains that “Jeremiah has become the port in the storm for his peers; he freely gives everyone his undivided attention, his wonderful smile, and ‘you can sit with me’ accepting attitude. Jeremiah seems so confident and proud of the person he is now; it’s hard to imagine him as a teenager who was once so tormented that he often thought of suicide. But Jeremiah hasn’t forgotten that pain, or the pain of countless other youth who struggle with their identity. He makes a point of noticing students who seem to feel insecure or to lack friends, and he is quick to step in and offer friendship.”

Jeremiah graduated from Urban Corps in June of 2014 and earned a scholarship. The staff noticed how he had grown into a leader, and recommended that he interview for a new internship with California State Parks. Jeremiah impressed everyone at his interview and has continued doing so in his role at South Carlsbad and South Elijo State Beaches.

The primary duties of Jeremiah’s internship are to assist California State Parks with the development and execution of both environmental education programs and data collection for the 2014 CalRecycle Grant. He helps clean the beaches of trash and recyclables, document the data for these projects, and also proactively engages beach-goers through interpretive programs about recycling. He emphasizes  the important role everyone can play in protecting the beaches and oceans. Jeremiah says that “we ask people to fill out comment cards after each presentation, and I recently got one that I am especially proud of. The camper said, ‘Jeremiah made learning about recycling and coastal conservation fun and interesting! His hands on approach and humor made it a really memorable experience. I will absolutely be coming back!’”

Supervising State Park Ranger Lisa Urbach writes that “Mr. Ruiz’s willingness to take initiative, execute superb programs and use precise data collection techniques created a successful partnership between California State Parks, the Urban Corps and the local high school. His positive energy, creative spirit and desire to succeed will be seen for years to come due not only what he’s already done, but also because of his involvement in the planning of a campfire center mural, development of a recycled plastic bottle wave sculpture and the moments shared and memories created from several annual events including Coastal Clean-up Day and the Halloween Spooktacular Event. Jeremiah Ruiz is an exceptional young man who is a tremendous asset to California State Parks and the Urban Corps.”

In addition to his internship, Jeremiah continues his service by volunteering at a center for homeless LGBT youth, and also as an Environmental Educator at Urban Corps’ charter school. What’s next for Jeremiah? He says that his Corps experience showed him that he is “much stronger than I gave myself credit for… I will continue my education at San Diego City College in the Spring Semester. I know that whatever I do in the future, I absolutely must keep helping others. I need a career that allows me to stay active in the fields I care about: giving back to the community, helping our planet, and mentoring youth. This is why I’ve decided to become a teacher. I hope to change the lives of youth in my community the way Urban Corps has impacted my own life and the lives of my peers. It’s been a long time coming, but I finally found like I’ve found the right career path and I am so excited to see what the future holds.”

Boiler Plate: 
Meet Jeremiah Ruiz, a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year.

Energy Efficiency Program at Corps a Stepping Stone to New Opportunities for Taos Woman

The following story showcases one of The Corps Network's 2015 Award Winners. Jasmine Romero will be recognized as a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year at The Corps Network National Conference in February. More stories for our 2015 Award Winners can be found here.

Jasmine Romero was born and raised on the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. As a teenager, she moved with her mom to Albuquerque, where she graduated from high school and earned good grades. Next, she advanced to college where for about a year-and-a-half she worked toward a degree in engineering. But what came next would challenge Jasmine.

Starting with a heart attack suffered by her father back home on the Taos, Pueblo, a series of consequential events began to negatively impact Jasmine. Eventually she and her mom were forced to live out of their car. Jasmine turned to alcohol to cope with her problems, and soon it became yet another problem for her to overcome.

A little over a year later, Jasmine enrolled in Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. She had sought out counseling for alcohol abuse and heard about the program from her counselor. Jasmine says that, “At first I was hesitant about applying till I read their mission statement. The mission statement is what got me. One key phrase, ‘A stepping-stone to new opportunities,’ this simple statement meant that I had a chance to start over.”

During her term, Jasmine learned the basic skills to weatherize homes to make them more energy efficient. She obtained certifications from Santa Fe Community College in retrofit installer, lead safe practices, OSHA 10, and also First Aid and CPR. She enjoyed the work so much that she applied to return for a second season as an Assistant Crew Supervisor for the Corps’ energy efficiency program. The hard work and attention to detail that Jasmine provides when working make her well-respected among the Corps’ staff and her peers. One staff member remarked that “I know that I can leave Jazz with a task list at any point during the day and come back knowing the crew has been productive.”

Many of the homeowners who have received weatherization services from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps are thankful, including a memorably appreciative elderly woman. Jasmine recalls that “she was unsure at first, having a bunch of kids in her house, but she watched us work as a team and could see the quality work we were doing and was crying out of gratitude by the time we left.”

Jasmine is currently still serving in her second AmeriCorps term with the Corps. She hopes to continue advancing in the energy efficiency field and utilize the AmeriCorps Education Awards she has earned. The staff at the Corps think that, with additional certifications, she could very well become the first woman to serve as an official energy auditor / inspector in New Mexico—a compliment to how far Jasmine has come in developing her work skills. But she views things a little bit differently.

“I can go through and name all my certificates that I received. I can go through the trainings they have provided me and the education award that they have also presented to me. But this is not the important bits and pieces they have taught me. They have taught me how to manage myself as a person to make sure I have my priorities straight. They have taught me so much about life that I had no idea about. I have become 10 times a better person than I was before. They have taught me different types of communications, different types of personalities, and how to connect the dots between these two major characteristics of a person. I have learned how to better control my emotions whether it be at work or at home. They have helped mold me into the person I have always wanted to be.”

Boiler Plate: 
Meet Jasmine Romero, a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year.

Refugee from Afghanistan Plants Legacy of Trees in Syracuse

The following story showcases one of The Corps Network's 2015 Award Winners. Mokhtar Mohammadi will be recognized as a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year at The Corps Network National Conference in February. More stories for our 2015 Award Winners can be found here.

Before coming to Syracuse, New York, Mokhtar Mohammadi was living with his younger brothers and sisters in refugee camps in both the Czech Republic and Iran. Originally from Afghanistan, Mokhtar’s parents are deceased. In their absence, he has taken on the role of providing for his family. While in Iran, Mokhtar was in high school, but also working in construction jobs and a photography studio.

Upon his family’s arrival in Syracuse this past January, however, Mokhtar’s educational and workforce options were very limited. The timing was not good for entering school, and Mokhtar needed to earn money for his family. Unfortunately, he struggled in the traditional job market because he was a newcomer and just beginning to learn English. Thanks to a referral from several collaborators of Onondaga Earth Corps, Mokhtar heard about the Corps and enrolled in March.

Mokhtar’s supervisor at Onondaga Earth Corps explains that “soon after his hire, Mokhtar began proving himself to be one of the most committed crew members the OEC has ever had. He is an extremely hard worker, capable of leadership and a trustworthy crewmember. As his supervisor I was very confident in assigning him important tasks with very minimal supervision… Despite English being his second language, Mokhtar was able to be productive during community outreach activities. His language ability started out very limited, but when he joined the Corps, his commitment to learning and adapting to new ideas has propelled him forward enormously.” 

Mokhtar has advanced to serving as a Crew Leader on the Corps urban forestry projects. He is known for his upbeat attitude, intelligence, willingness to help out others after his own work is done, and his jokes. He has become a role model for others and even gave an inspiring speech to the Corps summer youth program about the importance of the environment to young people. On Arbor Day, he also provided an environmental education program about trees to eighty 6th grade students at a local middle school.

“The Onondaga Earth Corps helped me very much in my personal life. It wasn’t just a job; it was a job and educational opportunity. My supervisors helped me get into college among many other things. In addition to job skills, I learned: life skills, team work, leadership skills, and lots of information about trees, tree identification, the environment, urban forests, the storm water system in Syracuse and more,” says Mokhtar.

Currently Mokhtar is still with the Corps, but he has also taken on an additional job and enrolled in Onondaga Community College. His family has now moved from a temporary residence into a stable home and has integrated well into the community.

His supervisor says that “If Mohktar chooses to stay in Syracuse, he will always be able to look back and see all the 1000+ trees he planted with Onondaga Earth Corps when he first arrived here in America and know he has had a major impact not only on our urban environment, but the community as well.”

Boiler Plate: 
Meet Mokhtar Mohammadi, a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year.

"Mindful" Corps Experience Helps Young Man Overcome and Like a Phoenix, Fly Toward His Dreams

The following story showcases one of The Corps Network's 2015 Award Winners. Harris Cox will be recognized as a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year at The Corps Network National Conference in February. More stories for our 2015 Award Winners can be found here.

A staff member at Oakland, California’s Civicorps writes that “Harris Cox came to Civicorps at 21 years old with low self esteem and a lack of trust, seeking a community where he could thrive… We watched a young man who struggled with anger, insecurities and pain, blossom into a confident and productive member of our community.”

Pain plays a large part in Harris’s story, but his Civicorps experience helped renew his spirit, and taught him how to use that pain to help others.

“Before I joined the Corps I was moving from pillow to pillow without a stable place to lay my head,” says Harris. “I was mad at the world and myself because I didn’t understand my life. At the age of six I was the victim of a crime that left me with severe burns over my neck, arm, and legs and was in an extensive medically induced coma to deal with the pain and skin grafts that had to be done. After this I felt like society alienated me because of my scars and I had to fight for respect in order to feel normal.

As I grew up I was doing crimes and was in and out of jail.  I was weird about money because it was so hard to survive and I was just trying to feed myself and my family. At first my family consisted of several of my brothers and sisters (all together I have 16 brothers and at least 9 sisters who I have relationships with), and then I had a son to also care for and worry about. The last time I went to jail I was in for three years and I told myself, ‘That’s it.  I have to change. I have to find myself and find that man I wish my dad would’ve been or would’ve shown me.’ What made me want to become a Corpsmember was that all my life drugs had played a huge role in my family and I wanted to show my Grandmother that I could break the pattern, not throw my life away, and allow her to rest in peace. My mom never passed middle school because of drugs. My father didn’t care who or what hurt me because drugs took over… Looking back I can say that not once did either of my parents ever tell me from their hearts that they loved me. The day I cut my son’s umbilical cord, I vouched that every single day I would tell him I love him because I know that is all a child needs to begin. My son is now five years old and I have a one year old daughter and I am proud to say they hear I love them every day.”

During Harris’s time at Civicorps, he earned numerous perfect attendance awards and “hard hitter” awards, which recognize a strong commitment to work. He says that he gained a lot of job skills, and in particular enjoyed learning how to use chainsaws. He cut down trees as part of the conservation work he did with his peers. The impact of seeing the projects before and after they were completed made an impression on Harris. He learned how to work with people from different backgrounds and the valuable lesson that in his own words, “you sometimes just ‘gotta gulp it’ and be one with your job.” But perhaps what made the biggest impact on Harris was an internship he had with a CiviCorps partner called Mindful Impact. It’s an organization that helps adults and young people more intentionally process their emotions to alleviate stress and personal trauma while improving their personal health.

A staff member at Civicorps says that “Harris’s solid foundation of dedication and academic diligence, along with his quiet introspective spirit, naturally steered him toward an internship opportunity with Mindful Impact… Being a burn victim due to an act of hate, he understands trauma at its deepest level… Through his internship Harris gained a greater understanding of how the mind works and how we become reactionary when trauma is triggered. His connection to this knowledge and the benefit he has personally gained from the practice have allowed him to work with students young and old in an authentic manner. He returns to Civicorps regularly to introduce the topic to the new student cohorts and because Corpsmembers respond so well to Harris and his presentation of mindfulness, he was a guest speaker at the Health Summit… He spent time assisting with burn counseling alongside his own burn counselor and it is perhaps these experiences that led him on the path toward becoming a Mindfulness Coach.”

Harris says that “The Corps gave me a mirror and told me that I’m beautiful inside and out.  This happened because teachers kept telling me that there was something positive about me that I didn’t want to see… The one thing I’ll never forget about Civicorps is that they understood my pain and accepted me for who I am. I never had to force myself to fit in nor was I forced to talk about my past and my physical and emotional scars. Everyone waited for me to open up; they waited until I was comfortable to talk about being burned and in a coma for six years. And when I did open up they didn’t judge, they cried with me… Civicorps became my pillow and now I don’t have to keep moving from place to place I just have to keep learning and remember how far I have come and how far I still want to go.”

Harris earned his high school diploma in June and also received three AmeriCorps education awards for his service while enrolled in Civicorps. He currently attends Merritt and Laney Community Colleges with the goal of earning an Associate in Arts degree. He wants to then transfer to a university to continue his education.

Harris also currently volunteers with the Mosaic Project, a nonprofit in Oakland that works with fourth and fifth graders to teach them about diversity and conflict resolution. In other words, it’s a role that plays to Harris’s strengths. Civicorps staff hear highly positive reviews from their counterparts at the Mosaic Project. Harris visits schools to talk to students, but also serves as a recurring volunteer Cabin Leader. He serves as the primary adult leading a group of six to eight students as they have a weeklong experience at the Mosaic Project’s outdoor school.

Harris says that learning about mindfulness “helps victims of trauma understand what they are dealing with and to be more relaxed in order not to have immediate or negative reactions and actions. I teach this method of relaxation to kids.. and I think starting out building these skills at a young age will reduce the percentage of youth going to jail... We talk about behavior and understanding how to help one another with pain and how to heal from pain.”

Harris is currently one of the Civicorps’ Corpmembers featured in an advertising campaign around Oakland that uses posters, and even a large billboard to recruit new young people into the program. One poster features Harris alone, and in large type the poster says “I make Oakland look good.” Now that you know Harris’s story, it’s probably hard to disagree.

Harris says that “I have two passions, one is for flying and I have a dream of getting my pilot’s license, the other is to be a role model for youth. I would like to be some type of social work counselor or juvenile probation officer to help youth stay away from jail or even worse, prison.  I want to keep youth from being exposed to that negative world. I am going to continue in college and hope to get my Masters Degree in psychology so that I can help people at a deeper level. Really, I am inspired to go to college no only for myself but because I have friends who passed and who wanted to go to college so now I feel I need to do it for them. Ultimately, if I don’t get my pilot’s license it will be okay because I know I’ll be flying kids towards their dreams and that will be just fine with me.”

Boiler Plate: 
Meet 2015 Corpsmember of the Year Harris Cox.

Young Woman Catches the "Corps Bug" : A Passion for Service, AmeriCorps to Blame

The following story showcases one of The Corps Network's 2015 Award Winners. Graciela Billingsley will be recognized as a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year at The Corps Network National Conference in February. More stories for our 2015 Award Winners can be found here.

Graciela “Gracie” Billingsley is all about service. Citing her parents as an inspiration, she believes that from the day they adopted her and her siblings, a passion for service to others and one’s community was ignited. The gratitude she feels toward her parents’ decision is immense. To explain further, while they were excited to adopt Gracie as a baby, the adoption agency subsequently informed her parents that they had the opportunity to adopt her siblings as well. Ultimately, even though they had not initially planned for it, they chose to do it so that Gracie and all of her siblings could remain together.

Upon graduating from high school in 2012, Gracie decided to take a “gap year” to serve her country before going to college. She heard about AmeriCorps from a relative, and joined AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). In this first prolonged service experience, Gracie worked on a variety of environmental stewardship and disaster relief projects in Tennessee, West Virginia, and Alabama. It’s safe to say that Gracie caught the “Corps bug.” This past summer, Gracie wanted to continue serving and also try camping, so she joined a crew with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Colorado as an AmeriCorps member. Gracie continued her stewardship by working on hiking trail maintenance and environmental restoration projects in the White River National Forest.

A staff member at Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) explains that “Gracie began the summer season at RMYC never having camped before. She rose to the challenges of living outside and working with a team in a 24/7 environment and despite her inexperience in camping, grew enormously, showing confidence and initiative around camp and at the worksite. Along the way she demonstrated her commitment to self-growth by asking thoughtful questions, seeking out feedback, and giving constructive criticism to leaders and others. From the beginning she was a leader by example, generously offering her time and effort to others on her team. Her focus was constantly on the crew before herself. Gracie’s philosophy is that as long as she has energy to give, her intention is to keep giving to others… Gracie fulfills the ideal of what it means to be an AmeriCorps member and public servant.”

One of Gracie’s most notable efforts went above and beyond what she signed up for. Following the end of her season, she organized a donation drive in collaboration with a charitable organization, Lift-Up of Routt County. She mobilized her fellow RMYC participants to help secure donations of food and clothing.

Following her time in Colorado, Gracie moved to the Washington, DC area. Putting the Education Awards she earned through AmeriCorps to use, she currently attends Northern Virginia Community College. Gracie plans to earn a degree in Government and International Affairs. She then hopes to join the Peace Corps masters program. Her ultimate goal is to embark on a career as a foreign service officer for the United States.

Gracie also presently serves as the volunteer Social Committee Co-Chair for the Washington DC Chapter of AmeriCorps Alums. “I don’t think enough people know about AmeriCorps and the invaluable effects the organization has on future generations, generations currently and on the Nation as a whole,” says Gracie. “I truly believe in AmeriCorps and want to bring what I learned in my service terms back home and to link up with other community leaders to raise awareness, funds and people to answer the call to service. My goal as a Social Co-Chair is to network with colleges, high schools, elementary schools and non-profits in the DC and surrounding areas to do as many volunteer events, community events and alum events as possible to build strong relations and to represent AmeriCorps the best way possible.”

Gracie cares so much about sharing her experience with others in part because of what it meant to her through both of her Corps experiences: “I am forever grateful for my service terms because these experiences truly shaped my life and gave me the confidence I need to fulfill my dreams. I have learned that my task is not done when the hard day is over or when I have overcome a challenge, rather the true accomplishment is the realization that I am not done because service is a life fulfilling commitment that is unending and needed for all of humanity.”

Boiler Plate: 
Read the story of Graciela “Gracie” Billingsley, a 2015 Corpsmember of the Year.