A Good Environment: James Zmudzinski shares why Fresno Local Conservation Corps is the place for him

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

James at The Corps Network 2006 National Conference in Washington, DC

James Zmudzinski, formerly a Corpsmember with the EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2006 for his commitment to service and self-improvement. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about James and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2006 National Conference.

James Zmudzinski started working at a young age. His dream was to build up his savings and eventually own an auto mechanic shop. However, there was a time when this goal seemed impossibly out of reach. James had never finished high school and barely earned enough money to support himself. As James says, he started making bad decisions and often got into trouble. When he realized it was time to get serious, James joined the EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps (LCC).

James quickly became a vital member of LCC’s Flood Control Basin Maintenance Program. His supervisors saw that he was a self-starter and appreciated his positive attitude. When he wasn’t working with the crew, James proved his dedication to self-improvement by taking full advantage of the life-skills courses offered at LCC. He also applied himself in the classroom and eventually earned his high school diploma through the Corps’ charter school. He then took a few college classes with the AmeriCorps Education Awards he earned as a Corpsmember. James says his overall experience as a Corpsmember and student with LCC was significantly better than his previous high school experience.

“The part of this program that worked for me was…well, basically all of it,” said James. “The people that work here, the case managers…if you need help with anything or if you think you’re going in the wrong direction, they’re always there. It was like everybody had open arms, so it was an easy place to be.”

James worked his way through the ranks at LCC. He was hired to be a Crew Leader and eventually earned his current staff position as a Supervisor. James has now spent over seven years with the Corps.

“I like the environment here. I started from the bottom and made my way up. Working with the youth in the area – that also made me stick around,” said James.

As a Supervisor, James leads LCC crews that assist with grounds maintenance projects for housing authority properties. His crews mow the grass, trim trees, prune bushes, and generally make sure the grounds are in good condition. James is now considering opening his own landscaping business.

Though he sees landscaping as a good way to make money, James still has his heart set on becoming a certified mechanic. He says he is practically a partner in the mechanic shop where he currently helps with auto repair work. His passion is restoring old cars.

“I’ve got to have cars in my life,” said James.

Between working at LCC and working on cars, James participates in a car club in his free time. Many of the club’s members are people James grew up with. They get together to attend car shows and host barbeques and family functions. Around the holidays, they participate in Toys for Tots and distribute food to families in need. James wants to be a positive role model and set a good example for his two children.

“My actual father was never around, so I’ve been serious about being there for my kids,” said James.

James isn’t sure where he would be today if he had never found EOC/Fresno Local Conservation Corps. As he says, “I hope I would be in a good place, but it’s hard to say. If I didn’t get the job here, the way I was going I would’ve been nowhere good.”

To you people thinking about joining a Corps, James says:

“It’s an experience. It can change you and hopefully it will. There are people here who can get you the help you need. It’s worth the time. Just give it a try. It’s not for everybody, but at least you get some experience out of it.”

2013 Project of the Year, Proving Our Parenting Skills (POPS) of EOC/Fresno LCC

About two years ago, the 70 people attending a Fresno Local Conservation Corps (LCC) orientation session were asked to rate how involved their fathers had been in their lives. They could choose to rank their dads as either “heroes or zeroes.” Sadly, over 80 percent of participants said their fathers were zeroes because they simply hadn’t been present. According to countyhealthrankings.org, there are over 99,000 single parent households in Fresno, most of which are headed by mothers. LCC consistently serves a large number of gang-affiliated youth whose fathers have never been present. Because many young Corpsmembers are fathers themselves, and because LCC’s mission as a Service Corps is to assist youth in finding personal stability, LCC saw it as their duty to help stop this cycle of absent fathers. The Proving Our Parenting Skills (POPS) program was born. 

In September 2011, LCC and its umbrella organization, Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC), received a $2.5 million federal Responsible Fatherhood grant. The first year of the three year grant ended in September 2012. Over the course of the POPS program, the Corps hopes to serve 1,400 fathers (age 30 and under) from the City of Fresno. LCC created partnerships with over ten local organizations to help recruit POPS participants and assist in program facilitation. These partners include the Fresno Housing Authority, the Fresno County Department of Child Support Services, childhood development organizations, veteran organizations, a domestic violence prevention center, numerous churches, and various nonprofits that respectively serve unemployed youth, homeless youth, and gang-involved youth.

The grant provides funding for 20 young fathers to take part in POPS while simultaneously learning vocational skills and earning their high school diplomas through the standard LCC program. POPS participants complete the 24/7 DAD comprehensive fatherhood curriculum, CHOICES anger management classes, and Love Notes 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, First Book Reading Nights, cooking classes, and other family-friendly activities.

In addition to the core twenty fathers in the POPS program, over 35 other Corpsmembers (male and female) as well as numerous veterans have access to POPS services. This includes anger management classes, family story-time, free diapers and wipes, children’s clothing, and picture books. Young men who complete the core aspects of the POPS program can build their leadership skills as POPS Ambassadors. These father Ambassadors mentor fellow dads and participate in a variety of activities that bring together fathers from the community to discuss their shared issues. Ambassadors also have the opportunity to receive advocacy training.

Those who participate in POPS come away with increased confidence in their parenting and relationship skills, a greater understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and enhanced communications skills. POPS fathers have the mindset needed to emotionally stabilize their families, as well as the vocational skills to begin providing for their families. These young men are given the tools and training to become heroes for their children, or in the case of veterans, become reintegrated into the family structure. The program is an asset to the community and hopes to grow through a developing relationship with the Men and Boys of Color Movement.

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.”