"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.

Four Service and Conservation Corps Programs First to Obtain New Accreditation

For Immediate Release                                                                                        
November 25, 2014

Victory for Civicorps to Expand Class B Driver Training Program

Article appears on Civicorps' website. Published July 31, 2014.

Last week's City Council meeting saw Civicorps in the limelight as their staff, students, Board Members, and community partners spoke passionately about how expanding their organics collection service will provide family-sustaining careers for Oakland youth.  

All eight City Council members individually lauded Civicorps for its achievements and willingness to create a new career pathway for Oakland's young adults.    

The vote before the Council was to award a garbage, recycling, and organics collection contract to either the current provider: Waste Management or to three Oakland-based partners: Civicorps, EBMUD, and California Waste Solutions. 

In the end, the Council voted unanimously to award the contract to the Oakland partners! Thus, Civicorps will collect commercial organics throughout the city and deliver them to EBMUD's anaerobic digester to be converted into renewable energy.  

Through this contract, Civicorps will be able to expand its Class B Driver Training Program to establish a pathway to lucrative Teamster union jobs. They also will create positions for graduates to become customer service interns and zero waste specialists.

This landmark contract will produce a national model for how to use a garbage franchise agreement to create pathways for low-income young adults while providing the best environmental outcomes for the entire city. 

"This proposal offers the City a sustainable solution to organics processing in Oakland, by Oakland, for Oakland."  

- Andy Katz, President of EBMUD's Board of Directors  

 

Read more about this groundbreaking decision in the Oakland Tribune and CBS Bay Area!  

Tags: 

2014 Corpsmember of the Year, Candace Washington


Candace Washington
AmeriCorps member - Civicorps
Oakland, CA

 

Candace Washington is the youngest of 10 children. She and her three sisters and six brothers were raised by a single-mother; they had no father figure in their lives. Candace’s eldest sister was responsible for making sure she went to school after their mother left for work every morning, but her sister never said much when Candace skipped class. For her sophomore year of high school, Candace chose the “home study” path, meaning she only had to be in school for about four hours a day. She stayed enrolled until her junior year and then dropped out.

“I felt there was no reason to be there,” said Candace. “My sister and other siblings did not really push me to get back into school because they did not finish school themselves, so it was very easy to give up on my education.”

After dropping out, Candace says she did not take life seriously. She was dependent on others, spending her time partying with friends or out at clubs.

“I was just a mess,” she said. “I had no education goals or career plan for my future. I thought just because I had some sort of income I would be set, but I was not.”

Eventually, Candace decided she wanted to make a better future for herself. Her brother and a cousin had both attended Civicorps in Oakland, CA and received their high school diplomas. Despite her lack of experience with tools or the outdoors, Candace knew she owed it to herself to give the program a try.

Upon joining Civicorps as an AmeriCorps member in March 2011, Candace demonstrated that she was there to utilize every opportunity the program offered. She quickly mastered new skills and proved her professionalism. As a crewmember in the Job Training program, she worked alongside her supervisor to train new Corpsmembers on the chainsaw and the weed-eater. In the classroom, she set the tone for her peers by maintaining her focus and helping others with their assignments. At Civicorps Community Meetings, Candace was recognized as the crew “hard-hitter,” and she was acknowledged for her outstanding class participation and perfect attendance record.  

Outside the classroom, Candace often participated in on-site yoga classes. Additionally, she joined the Corps’ cross-country ski trip, Yosemite service trip, and white-water rafting trip. She also attended weekend volunteer activities, such as the Walk to End Poverty and Coastal Clean Up.

“Being a part of Civicorps has made me a better community member,” said Candace. “Most of the work I did with my crew – like littler picking and trimming and cutting trees to reduce fire fuel – was me playing a part in keeping a clean community and a safe environment.”

A little over a year after joining the Corps, Candace completed her graduation requirements and received her high school diploma. She then applied for and was hired as the Civicorps Academy Intern. In this position she worked with the Head of School and the executive staff to ensure student success, and she led training sessions for new Corpsmembers. As her supervisors say, “Candace raised the bar on what was expected from the position and even began supporting other departments within Civicorps.”

As the internship came to a close, Candace was recruited to be the Recycling Hotline Intern for the City of Oakland’s Environmental Services Division. She continues to be actively engaged in environmental events and educational fairs.

In addition to her internship responsibilities, Candace is enrolled at College of Alameda. She has accessed her AmeriCorps Education Awards to help pay for classes and books. Candace wants to eventually transfer to a four-year school and earn a master’s degree in psychology.

“I am going to jump over any obstacle that may come my way. I know that if I continue to keep myself motivated and driven I can do it,” said Candace. “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 the possibilities…Every family member is proud of me and my accomplishments and they tell me every day to not give up, and I’m not going to. I was able to start over, and in life that does not happen very often.” 

Boiler Plate: 
Candace Washington is the youngest of 10 children. She and her three sisters and six brothers were raised by a single-mother; they had no father figure in their lives. Candace’s eldest sister was responsible for making sure she went to school after their mother left for work every morning, but her sister never said much when Candace skipped class. For her sophomore year of high school, Candace chose the “home study” path, meaning she only had to be in school for about four hours a day. She stayed enrolled until her junior year and then dropped out.

Speak Up, Be Heard: Civicorps Hosts Leadership Summit

On September 24th and 25th, Civicorps in Oakland California hosted its first ever Leadership Summit.

Taken from a Civicorps email update

Civicorps' hosted a powerful two-day convening of Oakland youth, community activists, and elected officials to discuss community issues, brainstorm solutions, and inspire action.

Youth heard inspiring speeches from Senator Loni Hancock and Junious Williams at Urban Stratgies Council. They also listened to stories from community activists about transforming passion into action and then brainstormed solutions for local issues with Community Health, Safety, Youth Engagement, and Career & Education Opportunities.

The youth teams then presented their ideas to a panel of decision makers, which included:  

"I learned how to be a leader - how to find my voice." 
- Youth Activist

"I am excited to see young black men talking about community issues."   
- Supervisor Keith Carson   

Click here to read more about the event 

Speak Up, Be Heard: Civicorps Hosts Leadership Summit

On September 24th and 25th, Civicorps in Oakland California hosted its first ever Leadership Summit.

Taken from a Civicorps email update

Civicorps' hosted a powerful two-day convening of Oakland youth, community activists, and elected officials to discuss community issues, brainstorm solutions, and inspire action.

Youth heard inspiring speeches from Senator Loni Hancock and Junious Williams at Urban Stratgies Council. They also listened to stories from community activists about transforming passion into action and then brainstormed solutions for local issues with Community Health, Safety, Youth Engagement, and Career & Education Opportunities.

The youth teams then presented their ideas to a panel of decision makers, which included:  

"I learned how to be a leader - how to find my voice." 
- Youth Activist

"I am excited to see young black men talking about community issues."   
- Supervisor Keith Carson   

Click here to read more about the event 

[Video] Civicorps Corpsmember Stars in PBS Documentary, Leaves it Behind as Legacy

An Important Note from Civicorps Executive Director Alan Lessik:  Sharon was due to graduate Civicorps in December with plans to attend college, when Civicorps found out that she died from a heart attack on October 16, 2013. The video is a testament to the perseverance that corpsmembers all over the country feel as they work hard to turn their lives around and to overcome the barriers that they face. Sharon’s final words in the movie talked about her future and how “I really want to make it.”

In the video, Sharon reflected on her past, her gang involvement as well as her family and  discovering Civicorps as the path to a new and different future. It describes her academic and work life at Civicorps and in some footage from in one of the East Bay Regional Parks, she talks about learning new skills and appreciation for the outdoors as part of a crew.

In our community meeting today, we honored Sharon and viewed the film together. All of Civicorps mourns her death  and the greatest honor we can give to Sharon is to bring her words into our hearts and our actions. As one corpsmember said, “She was my age, trying to get to a higher place. So, I’m going to graduate for her. I’m going to go to college for her.”

Twenty-one year old Sharon Montano grew up in east Oakland, California in a neighborhood known as the “Dirty Thirties.” She did fine in grammar school but when she hit middle school she began drinking, smoking, and popping pills with friends whom she’d later lose. In her East Oakland neighborhood, violence was part of her daily life.

Going back to school turned out to be more difficult than she thought. Over the years, she started and dropped out of several remedial programs; then later became ineligible for others because of her age.

When she discovers Oakland’s Civicorps, where she meets other young people who have gone through similar rough situations, she finally gets another shot at a high school diploma — and a future. Sharon has gone from being a bad influence to a role model, and really wants to make it.

Directed by Raymond Telles

More Information on the ITVS website

Boiler Plate: 
Sharon was due to graduate Civicorps in December with plans to attend college, when Civicorps found out that she died from a heart attack on October 16, 2013. The video is a testament to the perseverance that corpsmembers all over the country feel as they work hard to turn their lives around and to overcome the barriers that they face. Sharon’s final words in the movie talked about her future and how “I really want to make it.”

Speak Up, Be Heard: Civicorps Hosts Leadership Summit

On September 24th and 25th, Civicorps in Oakland California hosted its first ever Leadership Summit.

Taken from a Civicorps email update

Civicorps' hosted a powerful two-day convening of Oakland youth, community activists, and elected officials to discuss community issues, brainstorm solutions, and inspire action.

Youth heard inspiring speeches from Senator Loni Hancock and Junious Williams at Urban Stratgies Council. They also listened to stories from community activists about transforming passion into action and then brainstormed solutions for local issues with Community Health, Safety, Youth Engagement, and Career & Education Opportunities.

The youth teams then presented their ideas to a panel of decision makers, which included:  

"I learned how to be a leader - how to find my voice." 
- Youth Activist

"I am excited to see young black men talking about community issues."   
- Supervisor Keith Carson   

Click here to read more about the event 

2013 Corpsmember of the Year, Brandon Penny


During his third week at Civicorps Learning Academy in Oakland, CA, Brandon Penny wrote a poem in which he stated, “Just because I don’t have my high school diploma doesn’t mean I am not smart.”

It has always been evident that Brandon is smart and inquisitive, but school was never his thing. Brandon dropped out of high school during his senior year after he failed the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and couldn’t receive his diploma on time. Failing the test left Brandon frustrated and discouraged; the previous four years of school seemed like a waste of time.

Brandon didn’t have a job to fall back on after he left school. Without classes or work to keep him busy, he started thinking about the future. He knew it was his own responsibility to get back on track, but he didn’t have much initiative and he didn’t know where to turn. Then Brandon’s uncle told him about Civicorps. From the description his uncle provided, Brandon thought the Corps would simply pay him to go back to school and finish his graduation requirements. He was later upset to discover that becoming a Corpsmember also meant having to work. Soon after joining the program, however, Brandon embraced the Corps model and began making real progress.

“I learned I needed guidance and, most importantly, I learned to seek it,” said Brandon. “Once I started to understand the Corps and myself, I learned that I could perform at a high level and be accountable. I knew that if I wanted something, I had to earn it.”

Brandon worked with a number of organizations during his time as a Corpsmember. He gained valuable job experience as he helped complete environmental projects sponsored by the California Department of Transportation, the East Bay Regional Park District, the East Bay Water and Utilities District, and the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. Brandon became skilled at using weed whackers, hedge trimmers, and chainsaws. He also developed a working understanding of basic landscaping and land management techniques.

“My favorite crew work was with the Alameda County Flood Control District (ACFC),” said Brandon. “I loved jumping in creeks, bucking down the pile, cutting down trees and trimming ivy.”

After about eleven months, Brandon’s supervisors promoted him to a Crew Leader position. This added level of responsibility gave Brandon the motivation and confidence he needed to finish his graduation requirements and begin planning for bigger and better things. He ended up earning perfect attendance awards for six consecutive months.

Upon graduating in December 2010, Brandon requested to be moved to the Corps’ recycling department. Jobs in the recycling department require a more specialized skill set and demand a higher level of responsibility, but that was exactly what Brandon needed. He didn't want to be seen as “just another lazy kid”; he wanted to set an example for his peers and be a model Crew Leader. After four months of working on the recycling center sorting belt, Brandon was promoted again and became an equipment operator. It was encouraging to be trusted with using forklifts and front loaders, but Brandon was determined to gain even more responsibility by becoming a truck driver; the highest position in the recycling department.

“Once I was promoted I knew that I wanted to become a truck driver.  Now that I reflect on the Corps’ impact on me, I have learned to always stay humble and keep striving to reach my goals,” said Brandon “It took me about six months to get promoted to become a truck driver…Trust me, it wasn’t easy. I had to prove to my supervisors that I was ready for the big step forward.  I really had to stand out from all of my peers. I knew I had to earn the trust of my supervisors. I had to come to work every day and be on time. I made sure if I said I was going to do something, I did it.”

Now that Brandon has his Class B driver’s license, he can consider a career as a commercial truck driver. If he does decide to pursue a new job, he’ll be able to advertise his many hours behind the wheel of the Civicorps recycling truck. His morning collection routes can sometimes span the entire Bay Area; one morning he might pick up recyclables in the Berkeley hills, while the next day he might need to drive the truck to Pinole, over 45 miles away. No matter where his route takes him, however, Brandon tries to finish early so he can return to the recycling center and help with whatever tasks still need to be completed. He’s more than willing to take a shift on the sorting belt or the front loader if one of his peers needs assistance.

Brandon is conscious of things he can do to help maintain a supportive atmosphere at Civicorps. His actions prove that he is committed to always being a positive influence on his peers. He first displayed this commitment within a few days of starting at the Learning Academy. A fellow student started to get agitated when he pressed Brandon about an assignment, but Brandon maintained his cool and managed to avoid a physical confrontation. He reminded his classmate that they were both at the Corps to learn and should support each other in their academics.

Another instance in which Brandon looked out for his peers also happened in school. He decided that something needed to be done about how the math instructor consistently struggled to maintain control of the class. Brandon observed that his fellow students had trouble understanding the instructor’s foreign accent, so he offered to be a teacher’s assistant and help field questions from the class. Brandon’s assistance allowed the teacher to do his job and helped the students understand the course content. No other teachers or administrators were aware of this arrangement; Brandon helped the instructor without being asked and without any outside organization. He simply saw a problem and did what he could to fix it.

Brandon is currently enrolled at Merritt College where he is working towards an AA degree. He hopes to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in landscaping and maybe even open his own landscaping business. For now, Brandon sees himself continuing to work in truck driving and waste management. Wherever his future takes him, Brandon says he wants to make sure he always has time to be an active member of his community. 

“The most important thing I would like to be is a mentor in my community,” said Brandon. “I want to help the youth do positive things in life, like finishing high school, going to college, and moving out of the hood, just like I did. There are so many things that I want to do in the future, from being a professional truck driver, to getting married, to starting my own business, but most of all I want to be a role model. To reach my pinnacles in life, I have to take it one step at a time. I want to thank Civicorps for all the experience I have gained.  I received my diploma, became a Crew Leader and became a commercial driver…Without Civicorps I don’t know where I would be.”

2009 Corpsmember of the Year: Tatiana Moore

 

Before coming to the corps, Tatiana was in a downward spiral. She had no high school diploma, was running in the streets, smoking weed, drinking and staying out all night.  Before high school, Tatiana had been good student - she went to classes and did all of her work. Then things turned when she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.  However, the East Bay Conservation Corps, which is now Civicorps, helped change her life.

Tatiana started out working with the Alameda County Flood Control program but she was soon promoted to an internship position with the Recycling program. She eventually worked her way up to being a Crew Leader.  Then, one year into holding the Crew Leader position, Tatiana became pregnant. She thought she was going to have to stop working but, with the support of her crew she was able to continue at her job until the baby was born. After taking a month-long leave of absence, Tatiana came back to the Corps. Two months later, she got another promotion called an "outside internship" at the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA). Tatiana works in the finance department but is interested in pursuing a career in Social Work. She hopes to one day be able to work with at-risk children or children with disabilities. Tatiana said, “If I work with troubled kids I know I can help show them that their life is not over no matter what kind of problem they have.” 

Tatiana is already taking classes at Laney Community College. She plans to use the AmeriCorps scholarship she earned through her service to continue classes at the community college before transferring to a university. 

“I want my son to have the best future possible, everything that I didn’t have," said Tatiana. "I don’t want him to go down the same road I did, though I know kids seem to experiment with life when they get to a certain age.  My plans are to stay in college, get a good paying job working with kids, and I want to be the best mom ever. All this became possible because of Civicorps.”

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