The Corps Network Announces New Service & Higher Education Program


Corpsmembers taking part in innovative higher education pilot to obtain college credit for their service in Corps

The National Council of Young Leaders: On the Need to Make Higher Education more Attainable

National Council of Young Leaders banner, painted by council member Francisco Garcia

Created in July 2012 in response to a recommendation from the White House Council on Community Solutions, the National Council of Young Leaders is tasked with informing policymakers, business leaders and funders about the issues faced by America’s young people. The 14 founding council members, ranging in age from 18 to 34, come from diverse upbringings in urban and rural low-income communities across the nation. They represent our country’s Opportunity Youth: the 6.7 million young Americans who are neither in school nor working, but who pose enormous potential for our economy and our future if they are provided the opportunity to get on track and get ahead. Though each council member has overcome different kinds of obstacles, they all share in common their participation in transformative youth programs that helped them become the successful young adults they are today.

In the fall of 2012, the Council released its first publication - Recommendations to Increase Opportunity and Decrease Poverty in America. The report outlines specific actions that could help Opportunity Youth and their communities. One of highlights of the publication is the Council’s Six Recommendations for Immediate Public Action: 1) Expand effective comprehensive programs; 2) Expand National Service; 3)Expand Private Internships; 4) Increase All Forms of Mentoring; 5) Protect and Expand Pathways to Higher Education; and 6) Reform the Criminal Justice System.

We wanted to hear the Council Members describe in their own words why these specific Recommendations are important to them and important to the success of America’s young people. Below, find out why council member Adam Strong is passionate about Recommendation #5...

Protect and Expand Pathways to Higher Education:
Make sure that college and registered apprenticeships are affordable and attainable for low-income students. Education awards, scholarships, low-cost community and state colleges, loans that are not predatory or excessively burdensome, and Pell Grants for nontraditional students must be protected and expanded, barriers to obtaining them reduced, and pathways to college strengthened. We understand that higher education is one key to lifelong success. [Recommendations to Increase Opportunity and Decrease Poverty in America, p. 8]

(Parts of Adam's bio and his photo are from the YouthBuild website)

Adam Strong was raised by his father in the Appalachian community of Jackson, KY. After high school, he enrolled at the local community college and took a position as a security guard at a mine. Unfortunately, this job didn’t last long; the mine was in decline and Adam soon found himself unemployed. A friend from high school referred him to the YouthBuild program. 

At YouthBuild, Adam took part in community service and outreach projects, while receiving a stipend. He gained construction skills, and had the opportunity to tutor through YouthBuild as a fulltime AmeriCorps member. The experience helped introduce him to new possibilities and a new perspective on life. 

Adam currently lives in Hazard, KY where he is a student at University of Kentucky. He expects to graduate in December 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science. He plans to get a job as a medical lab technician.

As a member of the National Council of Young Leaders, Adam has been active in informing policymakers about the issues faced by rural and low-income young people.

Why is this recommendation important to youth in general or to you specifically?

This recommendation is important to me specifically because I go to a four-year university right now and it’s pretty expensive. I actually started out at a community college – one of the main reasons why was just because the cost is a lot cheaper. I’ve been the recipient of a couple AmeriCorps Education Awards, which have helped me out a lot in paying for college. If it wasn’t for them I otherwise would’ve had to take out loans, so I’d be even more in debt.

My whole thing is that even though college is a direct ladder out of poverty or can help people who just want to find success or make more money, you have to go into something that there’s a ready market for. We need better advisors. There are a lot of college graduates that are unemployed right now. I believe that right now there should be more of a focus on professional programs. There are jobs readily available and there are a lot of people that, like I said, are unemployed or they’re just not satisfied after they get their college degree…So I think there’s an informational gap right now and it needs to be closed so that people know the right programs to go into. End game, you don’t want to graduate from college and you have a bunch of debt and you’re not able to put that degree towards a job. So I believe the pathways to education need to be strengthened and I believe there needs to be a strengthening of the information provided to students so that people not only can go to college and pay for college, but also do well and succeed after they get their degree.

That’s my overall feel because a lot of people in my program already got degrees and already have a lot invested in college, so they’re not really getting a payoff at this point. But college is for sure the best way to better yourself or better your situation. It’s what you should do, but at the same time I think you need to be able to make informed decisions all along the different steps of the process.

What do you think are ways we can make higher education more accessible and attainable?

I think education awards – AmeriCorps awards –  they’re a great thing and I think that’s one thing that needs to be strengthened just so more people can go on to higher education. Maybe more people need to be informed about the ways they can access these different service awards just because they offset costs for college a whole lot…Knowledge about them needs to be more available to the public.

Another thing – I know they do this at a lot of med schools – but more schools could have a tuition guarantee. You come in as a freshman and each year that you stay in college and meet the requirements, you get a guarantee that the tuition won’t go up. Because I know at my school – University of Kentucky – they raise the tuition just about every year. But if you stay in the program, it would be nice if tuition guarantee was more widespread. Just a lock-in. It wouldn’t save you a whole lot, but I’d think it could save you couple hundred or even a few thousand dollars over the four or five years it takes you to get your bachelor’s degree.

The Recommendation says higher education should be made more affordable and attainable for low-income students. A lot of the points in the recommendation focus on ways to make college more affordable, but aside from economic factors, do you believe there are certain barriers that make college unattainable for low-income students?

Just in general, if you’re a low-income student then your personal affairs or your personal lifestyle might affect whether you can go to college. There are different types of poverty; it might be money, it might be resources or a lot of other things. If you’re coming from a low-income family, they may not be able to provide you with a vehicle. If you don’t have a vehicle that means you’re going to have to live on campus. But if you live on campus and you don’t have a vehicle, you might need to find a new job. Because you need a job since your family’s not going to be able to give you money throughout college every week...So it’s really just your situation in general – not just being low-income. It’s just your lifestyle or maybe you have family ties and you have to go to a community college, or maybe you have a kid. Low-income people tend to have a lower amount of resources, like information resources. Maybe they tend not to know where to find help to pay for college or all the different programs. There are a lot of different things that can dissuade you from going to school outside just the cost of college. All those are different barriers. For a lot of people have, I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but just because of their situation it might be easier for them to go to college. 

Another thing is that, I know this is true for some of my friends, they make just enough money where they don’t actually qualify for financial aid. When you fill out your FAFSA, you have to put down your ESC – your Estimated Family Contribution. Well, I mean, if you make $50,000 or $55,000 and your mom makes $30,000 – and that’s even if you live in a dual-income household, because as you can see the trend now is a single parent raising two or three kids. In those cases, you’re only getting one resource of money and you’ve got a couple kids, so even if you make $50,000 or $60,000 you might not actually have that money to contribute towards your child’s education. In most cases, I’m not saying families that are well-off, but might be better off than say…well we’ll say in general, my dad is unemployed so I get the full amount of financial aid. But for instance, I can think of two or three specific friends of mine who actually want to go to college, but they make too much money. So they don’t actually qualify for financial aid. If they were to go to college it would be all on academic merit and loans, or just all on loans depending on what kinds of scholarships they qualify for or anything like that. Just being at a certain scale, your family doesn’t really have the money to give you access to college, but at the same time, you’re in the middle. That can kind of dissuade you, too.

The Council states in Recommendation Five, “We understand that higher education is one key to lifelong success.” What does that mean? College is important, but it’s not the only key to success?

Higher education can be a key just because, like I was saying, it in itself is probably the best –but maybe not easiest – way to propel yourself forward. If you want to provide for your family or just do something more, you should probably go to college. Really college just opens up opportunities for you to do other things, make more money, or have different jobs. But it’s only one key because some people, even if they don’t go to college they’ll still be successful just because of some of the qualities they have. It’s not just about working hard, but investing in yourself. I know this is kind of weird but I’ll get on YouTube every once in a while and I’ll listen to Jim Rohn, he’s a motivational speaker, just because he has good things to say. I think there are a lot of different factors for success. When we [the Council] went to the Opportunity Nation Summit, one of the speakers actually talked about the different factors of success. A lot of them were just about doing extracurricular activities and being active in your community. Just being active and looking for opportunities and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it or ask for information – those are all factors. Just being open in itself will create more opportunities. And that’s not just in college – having the mindset of not being afraid and not being discouraged will help propel you forward in whatever you want to do.

Why should we be particularly concerned about college accessibility right now? Do you think college is becoming less accessible?

Well you kind of just have to think about the economic factors right now. At the one end of the spectrum you have all these people saying there are no jobs and they can’t find a job. And then at the other end of the spectrum, the government is saying there are all kinds of jobs that need to be filled. So there are a lot of potential jobs opening up, but they all require some sort of skill. They may not require a four-year degree – you might just need some level of technical education – but it’s really hard now to just go into a new city and find a job. Maybe you can in certain places, but the job outlook isn’t real good right now. So the focus has been shifting more towards college.

The cost of living is going up, the cost of education has gone up dramatically. So there just aren’t a lot of resources. A lot of people are unemployed right now. Like I said before, my father, he’s unemployed. People who want to go to college are having to rely more on themselves, but it’s not just that – the cost of college keeps going up so it’s much more of an investment than it was 10 or 15 years ago. So just the way I see it, in general, it’s harder to find a job, there’s less money for your family to put in, and the overall cost of living and cost of college are going up, so a lot of people don’t want to invest in something if it’s not a for-sure thing. I have two friends who kind of want to go to college but they don’t really qualify for any financial aid so they don’t really want to potentially end up with a lot of debt and not come out with a degree that will guarantee that they get high-paying jobs that would feasibly allow them to pay off their loans. So just out of shear cost.

Also, there’s the cost of the technology that’s required for classes. If you go into anything science related you have to pay an extra fee for labs. So there are a lot of other costs that come with tuition – whether its books, or a computer. Honesty, a computer is almost mandatory now. It’s not technically mandatory, but you really do need a laptop for college. So that’s a huge cost right there. So there are a lot more barriers than just the tuition.

Tuition is one of the biggest barriers to college, don’t get me wrong, but there are a lot of other fees too. I almost feel like tuition is the number two barrier. This is just my personal thing, it’s not something the Council discussed, but I feel like number one is just your situation; your family circumstances just because maybe you don’t have a strong support network – everyone needs one of those to be successful because college is a huge commitment. You need to have a good support network. I just feel like your circumstances in general can be a barrier. 

What is the Common Core Initiative?


This week, members of The Corps Network staff attended an AEI (American Enterprise Institute) research conference on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Common Core is an education initiative to align K-12 curricula across the country. The goal is that every student will receive a meaningful high school diploma that guarantees they have a certain level of ability that would be expected in college or desirable to an employer (see below for more information on what the Common Core State Standards entail).

So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the initiative. With the new Standards, states will be required to administer new assessments to measure student achievement. Though a test has not been created, the first formal assessment is expected to happen as soon as the 2014 – 2015 school year. This compressed timeline leaves many educators questioning whether the Standards will be effectively implemented and how successful CCSS will be. 

Panelists at the AEI event came to the conclusion that implementing the initiative will face a number of challenges as it interacts with existing school policies and other education reform initiatives. Issues and concerns the panelists discussed included: 

  • How will charter schools react to the Initiative? Charter schools are somewhat based on the idea that standardized schooling is flawed. Will charters reject the Common Core Standards out of fear that it would restrict their freedom to choose their own curriculum and teaching methods? Or, since all states and districts will be more closely aligned under the Common Core, will charter schools embrace the standards as a way to prove their methods are more effective than those used in mainstream schools?
  • The Common Core requires teaching a certain level of computer skills (keyboard use, etc.), and it seems likely that new state assessments will be administered on computers. How will this affect the already large “technology gap” between poor schools and wealthy schools?
  • Though implementation of the Standards is still just beginning, schools will begin formally testing students to see if their achievement levels have changed. How will we know if these assessments are really measuring student achievement in ways similar to how states measured achievement in the past? How soon will schools start looking at test results when making high stakes decisions about teacher hiring and firing?
  • Are teaching schools keeping up with the changes? Are teacher training methods reflective of the Common Core State Standards?
  • How will teachers respond to the Standards? Will they need to change any of their teaching methods? How will they react to working closely with other teachers?
  • CCSS places an emphasis on making sure students are exposed to increasingly difficult texts throughout their educational career. The Standards also require that students learn how to really interact with a text and analyze it, rather than just write about how the text makes them feel. Are students at a level where they are capable of handling this transition? 

What is the Common Core State Standards Initiative?

It is an education initiative that follows the idea that all students across the country should have a common core of knowledge that prepares them for higher education or the workforce. A high school diploma from any school, city, or state should guarantee that the recipient is literate and can compete in the job market. Historically, states have had vastly different standards for what a competent student should be able to do and understand; CCSS seeks to bring these standards into alignment.

There are currently Standards for math and English language arts (Standards for science and social studies do not exist yet). They were released in June 2010 and most states adopted them within a few months. States that adopted the Standards or a similar college and career readiness curriculum were eligible for federal Race to the Top Grants. All states that adopted the initiative plan to have 85 percent of their curricula on the Standards by 2015.

The CCSS initiative is more about prescribing what a student should be able to do rather than saying students should know specific facts or texts. For example, there are no reading lists to accompany the reading standards; rather, students are simply expected to read a wide range of classic and contemporary work that challenges their ideas and perspectives. 


2013 Corpsmember of the Year, Raghda Raphael

Raghda and her fiance

Raghda Raphael’s story is one of triumph over tragedy. She was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1988 and immigrated to the United States in 2010. Though Raghda came to America as a refugee, her life in Iraq was once filled with happiness. As a child, she had many friends and lived comfortably with her family in her grandfather’s big house. She was fortunate to attend good schools and received excellent grades. Sadly, life for Raghda and her family changed once the initial hopefulness following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein faded and insurgents took power of Baghdad. Raghda was soon surrounded by the threat of car bombs, roadside bombs, and assassinations.

“All of the Iraqi people were feeling horror,” said Raghda. “We felt unsafe, fear, uncertainty, and confusion because of the unexpected events we were facing in our lives.”

In 2008, Raghda’s uncle, a 35-year-old father of six, was kidnapped by armed men and held prisoner. His captors contacted Raghda’s cell phone numerous times and demanded ransom money. Her family was ready to pay, but after a few days the insurgents decided they no longer wanted money – they wanted Raghda.

“I hung up the telephone and never spoke to the captors again.  I chose to live and for that my uncle probably died,” said Raghda. “To this day, we have had no contact with our uncle.  We do not know what happened to him.  All of us in the family feel very sad.”


Raghda was so shocked and saddened by this incident that she could not concentrate on school and failed the high school exit exam. A year later, when she attempted the exam again, she passed and was accepted to the University of Baghdad. She studied hard in school and she and her friends tried to lead normal lives, but every day was full of uncertainty. One day, Raghda and her peers were in a car that was attacked by insurgents. Bullets broke the back window of the car and blew out the tires. Iraq was not safe. Raghda and her family moved to Beirut, Lebanon in 2009.

“As happy as my family was to take this step, it was also the hardest decision we ever made in our lives because we were leaving our own country, home and friends, knowing it would be the toughest challenge to date,” said Raghda. “…The good thing was we knew we would not be [in Lebanon] for a long time; it was a waiting station for us.”

In October 2010, the family boarded a plane for America. Raghda was relieved to find safety in their new home of San Diego, but she felt isolated by her limited understanding of English. Things changed, however, when she followed in her brother’s footsteps and joined Urban Corps of San Diego (UCSD).

Raghda’s teachers at Urban Corps recognized her intelligence and encouraged her to practice her English. About a year-and-a-half after joining the Corps, Raghda passed the California High School Exit Exam and received an American high school diploma in November 2012. Through the help of her teachers, Raghda’s English has become so strong that she now acts as a translator and tutor for Arabic-speaking Corpsmembers, and she has spoken about the Corps experience at various events as a UCSD Ambassador.

“Raghda exemplifies the Corps ideals of service, perseverance and determination,” said Geneva Karwoski, one of Raghda’s supervisor’s at UCSD. “…Raghda is motivated to succeed in every aspect of her life. As a student, worker, and peer she has fostered a sense of community among Urban Corps’ diverse group of Corpsmembers. She is fearless about befriending people from cultures outside her own, and has inspired many of her peers to follow suit. Her strong sense of character and commitment to the guiding principles of the Corps has made her an unparalleled leader and mentor for other Corpsmembers.”

While attending classes and working towards her diploma at Urban Corps, Raghda also worked with the Corps’ Fire Fuel Reduction Program and the UCSD Recycling Buyback Center. Raghda says that the experience of building trails, thinning forests, and sorting recyclables has helped her build a strong appreciation of the natural world. As a cashier in the Buyback Center, she feels proud to be able to play a part in helping divert recyclables from the landfill. Raghda has inspired the rest of her family members to become more conscious about their recycling habits.

In addition to her work at Urban Corps, Raghda helps support her family by working as a restaurant manager in the evenings. She also recently enrolled in college and has been busy planning her wedding. Her dream is to eventually earn her master’s degree and become a math teacher for underprivileged youth. Math has always been Raghda’s passion:

“My teacher in Iraq used to tell me, ‘You are smart in math; you should be a math teacher!’ Then when I came to Urban Corps, my teacher there told me the same thing!” said Raghda. “I really enjoyed the time I spent working with other students as a tutor and mentor, and it is my dream to encourage that interest in other young women too.  I have recently learned that many young people are not meeting the appropriate math proficiency levels and that such deficiencies will have a great effect on their future career opportunities.  I hope to one day be a part of the solution to this problem and make math a fun and enjoyable experience for those that struggle with it.”

Coming to America was a turbulent experience for Raghda. It was difficult for her to adjust and immerse herself in a new culture, but, as she explains, the welcoming environment and supportive staff at Urban Corps helped her feel like she had finally found a safe, comfortable home.

“Urban Corps helped me realize my potential and gave me the tools I needed to succeed in a new country.  Without the Corps I would not be where I am today. I am grateful for the opportunity, and for all the people that have made a difference in my life. I look forward to the day when I can do the same for another young person.”


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.”

2013 Corpsmember of the Year, Luis Gaeta


Luis Gaeta admits that there was a time when he had trouble prioritizing and could barely stomach the idea of having to finish all four years of high school. He rarely went to class during his junior year and subsequently dropped out. Though the prospect of no longer attending classes initially came as a relief, it didn’t take long for Luis to discover that the working world can be a harsh place for a young man without marketable skills or a high school diploma. He worked in retail, had a job as a referee at a paintball facility, and also worked as a security guard, but he still struggled to make ends meet. Additionally, his housing situation was unstable and his car constantly broke down. Maintaining such a hectic pace was difficult, but Luis had to keep up; he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.

“With all of the different schedules and expectations, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and discouraged,” said Luis.

Luis knew his lack of a diploma held him back from a more comfortable lifestyle. He started to attend adult school in the evenings, but then his girlfriend’s uncle mentioned something about EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps (LCC): a program that, as it was explained to him, would teach him construction skills and basically pay him to finish up his graduation requirements. Luis couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He applied for a Corpsmember position and impressed staff members when, during his intake interview, he said he wanted to be the kind of Corpsmember that steps forward and looks out for the crew. Luis was accepted to the program and soon proved that he is a man of his word.

Luis completed 14 credits towards his high school diploma within just two weeks with the Corps. He knew he was finally in the right place and doing the right thing for his future. It wasn’t long before he earned his diploma, having already earned two Student of the Month Awards and an honor roll award along the way.

In addition to gaining high school credits with LCC, Luis gained practical job skills in a variety of fields. He ultimately received training in all five of LCC’s programs: Construction, grounds maintenance, recycling, green building maintenance, and fatherhood preparedness. Among other accomplishments, he earned his class C driver’s license, first aid/CPR certification, and forklift operation certification.

“Along with my academic failures, I hadn’t had much work experience outside of the retail and customer service field,” said Luis. “I came into the program hoping to learn some construction skills. I was willing to take anything that was given to me…To my surprise, my first day out I was already on the roof installing the sheeting with my peers. This just blew my mind because I am the type of guy that has a passion for this kind of hands on labor. It came to the point that I, above the rest, showed an interest to learn any and all new things.”

After serving as a Corpsmember for a little over a year, Luis was offered a position as an LCC Senior Corpsmember. In this role, Luis – who now has a baby girl – became a peer mentor with the Corps’ Proving Our Parenting Skills (POPS) program. POPS helps fathers, ranging in age from 16 to 30, learn how to become confident parents and responsible figures in the lives of their children and partners. Participants in POPS must complete a comprehensive fatherhood curriculum, anger management classes, and relationship-building classes with their child’s mother. The fathers can also take advantage of POPS family activities, such as “Daddy Days,” that provide opportunities for children and fathers to interact through Zumba classes, reading nights, cooking classes, and other family-friendly activities. POPS Participants also have access to free diapers, children’s clothing, and picture books. Luis’s job as a Senior Corpsmember mainly involved handling the POPS outreach and social media efforts, but he also had the responsibility of acting as a role model for fellow young fathers working their way through the program.

“I enjoyed trying to help these young guys want to be fathers. They already wanted [to be, so that made it enjoyable],” said Luis. “It was in this program that I was exposed to the media for my role as a father. I started doing interviews on the KSEE 24 news station. Then I went on to being interviewed for a few other channels and an article.”

While assisting with the POPS program, Luis also helped facilitate LCC’s seven-week Emergency Preparedness certification course. He worked alongside Josh Christopherson, a fellow with Mission Continues; a program that helps veterans extend their service into civilian life. Josh and Luis ultimately led over sixty Corpsmembers through the Preparedness course.

 “Luis was my right hand man,” said Josh. “He did an excellent job as a role model and leader throughout the summer.”

Luis had a wide range of experiences during his time with the Corps, but he particularly appreciated receiving exposure to the construction trades. Through building Habitat for Humanity homes and completing vocational coursework through LCC, Luis found he was drawn to electrical occupations. The LCC staff took notice and encouraged this interest.

“My supervisor, Craig Henry, saw this and pushed my knowledge beyond its limits,” said Luis. “While most other Corpsmembers were outside shoveling dirt or leveling the ground, I was inside installing outlets, luminaries, and switches. I loved learning about all the electrical components of construction.”

Building off his interest in the electrical trades, Luis is using the AmeriCorps Education Awards he earned through his service with LCC to attend Fresno City College in pursuit of an associate’s degree in electronic systems technology. Even with his parenting responsibilities and a full-time job with the Corps, Luis maintained a 3.67 GPA during his first semester. He hopes to eventually transfer to California State University, Fresno to receive his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. 

“Although I had many obstacles thrown at me, I had a will power that couldn’t be overcome by any complications. I have a drive to get somewhere and be something big. I allowed my weaknesses to become the reasons why I became strong. Having all these obstacles gave me the desire for something better in my life [and the lives of my family members],” said Luis. “…I would like to mentor the future generations with my knowledge and experiences. I want to give back to the Corps what they gave to me. If this doesn’t work out, I am looking forward to getting an entry-level job in the electrical industry. I would like to get into a company that will take me from the bottom and build up my foundation of electrical knowledge to the most it can be…I know with the skills and experiences I’ve accumulated at the Corps, I will be there in no time.”


New laws will help revive the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps


Some of the latest bills signed into Michigan law aim to modernize and expand the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps (MCCC). Senate Bills 1261 through 1265 will broaden the scope of the Corps and facilitate the growth of partnerships that could lead to an increase in the number of Corpsmembers.

The new legislation will require the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to reach out to state colleges and universities that offer natural, cultural, and natural resource-focused curricula. The goal is to create university-based programs that provide college credit for students who participate in Corps, or that recognize student participation in Corps as field experience or internship experience. These measures would hopefully encourage college graduates to stay in Michigan and work for the MCCC.

Among other things, the Bills define the work that Corpsmembers will do (such as tree planting, waterway restoration, and trail development), and also define who can be considered eligible for Corpsmember positions (people no younger than 17 years old and no older than 27 years old on the day of their application). The legislation also gives the Department of Natural Resources the flexibility to purchase or rent property and equipment, and hire instructors, mentors, and other personnel necessary for implementation of the act. 

How a Summer Job Turned into a Life of Service and Conservation - Afton McKusick

Where are they now? – Catching up with 2006 Corpsmember of the Year,

Afton McKusick

Afton McKusick, a former member of the Coconino Rural Environment Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2006 for her commitment to service and environmental conservation. Read below to find out what she's been up to since accepting her award, or find out more about Afton and her Corps experience by reading her bio from our 2006 National Conference.

Afton McKusick “caught the Corps bug” when she was a teenager, and she seems happy to have never been able to shake it. She started at the Coconino Rural Environment Corps (CREC) in 2001 as an AmeriCorps Corpsmember, and over the course of nine years she was an Assistant Crew Leader, a Crew Leader, an Assistant Field Coordinator and a staff member at CREC. Today, Afton continues her affiliation with Corps as an employee of American Conservation Experience (ACE). And to think, all of this commitment to service and conservation started in a high school chemistry class.

“I was a junior in high school and [CREC] had just started their first Youth Conservation Corps and they were looking for people. So they were going around to all the high schools to advertise it,” said Afton. “I thought that working outside would be a much better job than working at Burger King or flipping burgers somewhere else.”

Afton has always loved the landscape and natural beauty of her home state of Arizona. When she was growing up she spent a lot of time outdoors and she has fond memories of going hunting with her parents. It wasn’t until joining CREC, however, that Afton thought about how a love of the outdoors could translate into a career. 

For Afton, it wasn’t just the chance to spend time outside that made her Corps experience so fulfilling. What really made her stick with the CREC was the sense of accomplishment she got from her work and the ability to spend time with like-minded people.

“You build a trail and you can see what you’ve done for all the people that are going to recreate there. I really loved that and it gave me a sense of ‘Hey – I’m really doing something good. I’m one person and this is a small crew, but look at what we’ve done together,’” said Afton. “I think AmeriCorps attracts a certain kind of person who is really enthusiastic and motivated and those are the kinds of people that I like to be around so that we can actually accomplish something.”

Afton, who is now 28, says that being a Crew Leader was the most rewarding experience she had with CREC. It was exciting to introduce Corpsmembers to the outdoors, teach them new skills and watch them grow. Seeing people she had trained apply their new skills and knowledge in subsequent jobs was very satisfying.

Overlapping with her years at CREC, Afton worked her way through school. She began at a community college where she earned an associate’s degree in environmental science. She then transferred to Northern Arizona University where she spent two years studying forestry. At this point, after six years of school, Afton decided to put down the books for a bit and work for the National Forest Service. She enjoyed working on a “fuel crew” that managed forest fire threats, but she realized working for the Forest Service was not her calling.

“I really liked it, but I really missed the camaraderie that you get within the Corps,” said Afton.

It was at this point that Afton was offered a job with American Conservation Experience. Her current job title is Chainsaw Coordinator and Trainer. She is responsible for overseeing the entire chainsaw program in the Arizona branch of ACE. She coordinates project logistics, trains new Corpsmembers on chainsaws, and supervises projects to make sure they’re up to her standards.

“Keeping everyone safe who’s running chainsaws is my number one goal!” said Afton. “Who knows what I’ll do when my body finally gives out and I can’t play around with a chainsaw anymore.”

ACE is just beginning an AmeriCorps program, and Afton is excited to be a part of its development.

“I really, really enjoy working with our AmeriCorps members and learning what they want to do with their lives,” said Afton. “We had a Corpsmember who was an architect and he got sick of it and came to ACE as an AmeriCorps member and he has totally changed his direction. Now he wants to be teaching people and working outside. I find that really exciting and I think that’s what AmeriCorps is all about.”

Afton hopes to eventually return to school so she can earn her bachelor’s degree, but for now she is very content with her job.

To young people thinking about joining a Corps, Afton says:

“Being in a Conservation Corps is definitely a lifestyle. And it’s a very rewarding lifestyle…. I think any Conservation Corps – especially the ones in the Southwest, with all the travelling you do and working in the national parks – you get to see things a normal tourist wouldn’t get to see. I personally think that’s pretty neat. And you’re also helping your community at the same time, which is really rewarding in itself…A lot of people who join AmeriCorps programs really do find friends that last them a lifetime. And at CREC, there are people who meet each other and get married.  I just think it’s a great opportunity to meet people, to expand your horizons, to put yourself in situations that you might not be comfortable with, and learn how to cooperate with people you might not have met otherwise.” 


How an At-Risk Youth became a Service Provider for At-Risk Youth

Where are they now? - Catching up with 2005 Corpsmember of the Year, Germain Castellanos

Germain Castellanos, a former member of Youth Conservation Corps - Lake County, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2005 for his commitment to service. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about Germain and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2005 National Conference.

When he became a Corpsmember with Illinois’s Youth Conservation Corps in 2004, Germain Castellanos was an unemployed 21-year-old without a high school diploma or any professional experience. Less than three years after he left the Corps, however, Germain was sitting on the YCC Board of Directors.

To understand how Germain made this inspirational transformation, it’s important to look back at where Germain came from. His teenage years were far from stable; caught up in gang-related violence and drugs, Germain was convicted of a misdemeanor when he was 16. As he grew older Germain decided he wanted to give back to the community he had hurt. He wanted to start a program that could help troubled kids avoid the same issues he faced as a teenager. It was while looking for assistance to launch such a program that Germain stumbled across YCC and subsequently became a YCC AmeriCorps member.

“I was trying to be productive because before then I had been unproductive and just been hanging out with the wrong crowd and not making good decisions and having a negative impact on the community. It wasn’t a good time,” said Germain. “I was an at-risk youth myself, so that’s why I wanted to help young people that didn’t have access to resources the same way that I didn’t have access to resources.”

Germain worked as a Youth Developer during his year with YCC. He conducted life skills workshops, provided his students with basic counseling and case management services, and led teens on conservation projects. Germain reflects on that year as a time of great personal growth. In addition to earning his GED and college credits from DeVry University and the College of Lake County, Germain found stability in his life.

“Looking back, I think it feels like the program helped me more than I helped other people,” said Germain. “I was at a point when I was being developed by other program participants and other AmeriCorps members around me. I would see how they were handling some of their problems and their issues and that helped me solve some of my own issues. It was a really good developmental process for me.”

After leaving YCC Germain continued to work in youth development by spending two and a half years as an Assistant Program Manager with YouthBuild, Lake County – an organization that provides youth with learning opportunities and the chance to gain job skills. In June 2008, Germain left YouthBuild to do what he had set out to do four years earlier: create his own program to assist at-risk youth. He designed the program, applied for grants, and soon established what is now the SHINE Educational Leadership Program at Waukegan High School; the same school Germain was kicked out of when he was a teenager.

Germain is still in charge of the SHINE program. He oversees three staff members, manages a $300,000 budget, and he is responsible for developing programming for the 52 high school seniors that SHINE serves. Germain is always trying to grow the program by attending meetings and making countless speeches that might help bring in more resources.

SHINE's goal is to help low-income high school students transition to college. Germain estimates that well over 90 percent of the 52 students enrolled in the program come from families that have never had anyone go to college. SHINE tries to change that. “We do tutoring, we make sure our students come to school, we make sure they graduate. On a day-to-day basis we have a list of benchmarks that the students need to meet and we’re consistently reiterating to them that they need to fill out college applications and apply for scholarships,” said Germain.

SHINE students also take classes at the local community college once a week to get a feeling for what college is like. In addition to the in-school SHINE program, Germain also partnered with Walgreens to provide pharmacy technician training and job placement for recent high school graduates.

Running two youth development programs and overseeing nearly 200 current and former program participants is just the tip of the iceberg for Germain. He recently finished classes at DePaul University and will receive his bachelor’s in public administration in June 2013. He spent three years on the board of the local library; currently serves on the Lake County Workforce Investment Board’s Youth Council; sits on the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity of Lake County; and of course also sits on YCC’s Board of Directors. He even plans to run for City Clerk in Waukegan.

Germain’s transition from being a recipient of services to a provider of services for at-risk youth earned him the Illinois Governor’s Journey Award in 2008. Remembering where he came from and looking at where he is now helps motivate Germain. It is particularly meaningful to him that he can now serve YCC, the organization that once served him.

“Because I went from a program recipient to a program provider I can help them make their services better with what I know and the knowledge I’ve gained professionally. I’m really involved with them and I do it in part to share my knowledge, but also because I’m reminded every time I walk in that building that I was there and I was on the other side of the table not that long ago. If it wasn’t for the opportunity I got at YCC I’d probably still be on the other side of that table, receiving services.”

Germain lives in Waukegan, Illinois with his wife and daughter.




Corpsmember Success Story: American YouthWorks Alum Builds on the Skills he Learned in the Corps


Taken from the American YouthWorks Newsletter

"American YouthWorks does a lot to help people, in all kinds of ways."  Jeremy M.

Jeremy already has his high school diploma when he came to American YouthWorks (AYW) in 2010, but he was 22 years old, had a two-year-old daughter, and was living in his car. He had been unemployed for over a year.

Jeremy’s grandmother, who had raised him and his siblings, was unable to help him financially. Jeremy also had issues in his past that made it difficult for him to find employment or housing.    

He was at a loss.  

People would tell me that they wanted to hire me, but they weren't able because of my background checks. No matter what I did, I always got the same answer."  

A friend told Jeremy about AYW's job training programs.  In these programs, participants learn hard and soft job skills, give back to their community, earn a small living stipend and receive an educational award for college expenses.  Jeremy applied and was accepted. He was relieved to have found a job and ended up learning and serving at AYW for almost two years.  

Jeremy credits AYW for giving him the job skills and life skills that have helped him be successful today.  

"The staff want to make sure the students have the foundation to thrive," said Jeremy

During the “Mental Toughness” orientation to AYW, Jeremy was told that the hardest part of the job would be showing up every day and being on time; this made a big impression on him and he learned that he could do it.  He acquired skills in carpentry, house framing and construction.  He also learned to be patient, observant, responsible and detail oriented.  

"Details in building a house are extremely important,” said Jeremy. “An error of 1/8th of an inch could mean the difference between finishing the cabinets, or having to tear them down to start all over again."  

Most importantly, Jeremy learned that he was a leader.   

While he was learning construction skills, Jeremy was improving his community by building affordable, five star, energy efficient homes for low-income home buyers and weatherizing and repairing existing homes for low-income Austin residents.

During his time at AYW, Jeremy earned educational awards totaling nearly $4,000 and was honored with a $2,000 scholarship from YouthBuild USA for his leadership and public service.  These awards, along with encouragement from AYW staff, made all the difference in Jeremy's choice to pursue higher education.  

"I wasn't planning on going to college.  AYW helped me make that decision,” said Jeremy.  

Jeremy says that when he first came to AYW, he was just coming for the job, but he received so much more.   Today, Jeremy is in his 5th semester of classes with Austin Community College and working full-time for the City of Austin's Public Works Department.  

Now, Jeremy has choices.  

When asked who Jeremy goes to for advice, he replied, "AYW! Even though I'm not in the program anymore, the staff are who I come to for support and guidance".