An Interview with Leslie Wilkoff, a 2014 Corps Legacy Achievement Award Winner

 

An Interview with Leslie Wilkoff

This year, we at The Corps Network interviewed our three 2014 Corps Legacy Achievement Award winners to learn more about their experience and history in the Corps movement. 

Read Leslie's Bio

When did you start working for The Corps Network?

I started working for The Corps Network essentially at the time of its creation. I was hired by the Human Environment Center (Hec) in September of 1984. We started with three people and initially it was pretty slow. I helped run a summer program that placed minority high school students in natural resource internships. We soon moved into an office space with an organization that would become the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (NASCC), and subsequently The Corps Network many years later. Originally starting with State Corps, we began working with and helping develop local Corps. My job started to get interesting when HEC began to act as the fiscal agent for NASCC up until we got an official 501c3 designation for the new organization. An initial key piece of funding ($90,000) came from the Ford Foundation and was partially used to buy our first computers. I began doing a lot of work for NASCC and in March of 1985 we had our first national conference here in DC. The attendees were mostly comprised of state Corps Directors and new California local Corps. Soon I became assistant to the Director of Membership for NASCC, then in 1991, I myself became the Membership Director. Our first major multi-Corps project was the Yellowstone Recovery Corps, following the devastating fires in the park. Two staff members, one from the California Conservation Corps and the other from East Bay Conservation Corps (now Civicorps), were detailed to head-up  this project, and it was a great learning experience.


What are some of your most memorable experiences from working with The Corps Network?

Doing site visits and talking to the Corpsmembers. Anytime you can talk to the Corpsmembers or Corpsmembers of the Year, especially if you get some extended time, you really feel a bond with them. When I first started working on the Education Award program in 2000 I had to do every administrative task associated with the program and I had a more direct relationship with the day-day details before e-Grants came along. It was always a great feeling to approve education awards for Corpsmembers. It just doesn’t get old. I also found it to be really fun to work with the Corps that hosted our annual conference before it moved to DC permanently. I got to learn a lot about how the Corps operated over a larger span of time, than just showing up for a site monitoring visit where people might feel more guarded about how I perceived what they were doing. I’ve also been lucky to attend a number of events at the White House over the years, including the announcement of the Points of Light, the day a plane crashed on the property, the signing of the National and Community Service Trust Act which established AmeriCorps (and shaking hands with President Clinton and Vice-President Gore). Each time was just as exciting as the last.


Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?

Establishing our Education Awards Program without any prior knowledge of AmeriCorps, and eventually becoming so familiar with AmeriCorps that I have often been asked by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to participate in small select grantee focus groups. I’m proud of how the program has grown and where it is today. It was about 1500 people to begin with and now we have approximately double that amount of members enrolling annually. I’m also proud of the health insurance plan for Corpsmembers that I helped create with our partners at Willis in 1991. I’ve grown with the organization which is nice.
 

What do you think are some of the most innovative or interesting things that The Corps Network has done since it was created to help benefit Corps, test new ideas, and pilot programs?

I would probably say the Urban Corps Expansion Project. The goal was to establish new service and conservation corps in places where they weren’t located at the time: Miami and Milwaukee, among others. I think there were probably in the range of 13-15 Corps that we helped start, and it contributed to our knowledge over the years as we developed the “How to Start a Corps Manual.” While not all of the Corps survived, it really put us on the path to helping start programs.


You currently manage The Corps Network’s Education Award Program (EAP). Do you ever hear from Corpsmembers about how they used their award?

You know I don’t, although when I’ve updated one of our publications about non-traditional uses of the Education Award I’ve enjoyed learning about what some Corpsmembers have done. With our current Postsecondary Success Education Initiative, we’re pushing for participants to use their awards right away. Because Corpsmembers have 7 years to use the awards they’ve earned, it’s been challenging for CNCS to track how & when Corpsmembers use them.


If any celebrity or public figure were to become an advocate for Corps, who would you want it to be and why?

You have to have someone who really believes in what they are doing. It’s impressive what Bette Midler has done with her organization and Corps, the New York Restoration Project. I think someone like Whoopi Goldberg would also be a celebrity spokesperson who could really push our issues and get support. I don’t know why, but I think she’s very dedicated and gives 100% to something she believes in. When she did the Comic Relief shows with Robin Williams & Billy Crystal you believed what she was saying. If we were to get someone younger, maybe Lady Gaga? She might resonate with a younger generation.


When not working, how do you like to relax and enjoy yourself?

I really love to sew whether it’s quick crafts for instant gratification or working on a quilt for six months. It’s one of the few things that clear my head and without my sewing I don’t think I could survive. I just can’t stop doing it, and sometimes I even work late into the night without realizing it. I love making things to be loved. In fact, I would rather give one of my quilts to someone who will really love it than get paid for it.  Each year at the end of EAP session at our national conference I give my hand-made crafts to the attendees because a) I feel guilty for mainly harassing them about compliance issues and b) they really seem to appreciate and truly enjoy these small gifts. 

 

Meet The Corps Network's 2014 Award Winners!

We are very excited to announce our 2014 Award Winners! They will each be honored at our National Conference in February. Please click on the links to read their stories. 


Projects of the Year

Each year The Corps Network awards several noteworthy endeavors from Corps with Project of the Year Awards. Here are links to stories about this year's winners.

Orange County Conservation Corps Partners with Disneyland on Innovative “Adopt-A-Channel” Program

Fresno Local Conservation Corps Helps Prepare New Home for Veterans

Vermont Youth Conservation Corps Boost Local Economy and Walkability of Vermont's Capital City


Legacy Achievement Award

The Corps Network Legacy Achievement Award recognizes leaders with approximately 20 or more years of contribution to the Corps movement, who have served in a senior leadership position of a Service or Conservation Corps or multiple Corps, and who have made a significant contribution to the movement (e.g. founded a corps, brought a corps to scale, served for approximately 15+ years as ED/CEO of a corps, or who have made a significant national contribution through developing a national project). This year's winner's include

David Muraki
Executive Director, California Conservation Corps

Scott Weaver
Senior Vice President, Government & Agency Affairs, Student Conservation Association

Leslie Wilkoff
Director of AmeriCorps Programs, The Corps Network


Corpsmembers of the Year / Corps Ambassadors

Each year The Corps Network honors Service and Conservation Corpsmembers whose accomplishments and personal stories exemplify the positive role that Corps serve for individuals and communities nationwide. They help serve as Corps Ambassadors, or spokespeople for the Corps Movement. 2014 winners include

Jon Brito
Kupu / Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps

Edgar Galvez
Fresno Local Conservation Corps

Eliseo Nunez  
Urban Corps of San Diego County

Linda Santana
Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Ruby Simonian 
California Conservation Corps

Candace Washington
Civicorps

Boiler Plate: 
We are very excited to announce our 2014 Award Winners! They will each be honored at our National Conference in February. Please click on the links to read each of their stories.

Announcing The Corps Network's 2013 Award Winners

We received many excellent nominations this year for our Corpsmember of the Year, Project of the Year, and Legacy Achievement Awards. We thank all of those who applied and submitted nominations. Without further ado, those who will be honored at our upcoming 2013 National Conference include...

Legacy Achievement Award
Marilee Eckert
Ira Okun
John Irish
 
Projects of the Year
Flying Weed Warriors – LA Conservation Corps
POPS – Fresno Local Conservation Corps
Real Food Farm – Civic Works 
 
Corpsmembers of the Year
Jesse Roehm – Mile High Youth Corps
Alex Hreha – Coconino Rural Environment Corps
Luis Gaeta – Fresno Local Conservation Corps
Sarah Huff – California Conservation Corps
Raghda Raphael – Urban Corps of San Diego
Brandon Penny - Civicorps

Congratulations to all of the winners! We will look forward to sharing their stories over the coming weeks and months with you.

Legacy Achievement Award Winner: Sam Duran

 

Sam Duran has dedicated his life to empowering, advocating and improving the lives of under-privileged youth through a career in the Conservation Corps movement. Sam possesses 33 years of executive leadership in conservation corps program operations and management in California. Through his significant experience, he has built a stellar reputation for ethical leadership and organizational ingenuity, while maintaining a tireless dedication to youth and what he refers to as the “magic of human potential.”
 
As the founding CEO of Urban Corps of San Diego County, Sam has guided this local conservation corps from its original budget of $120,000 to more than $8.5 million. The organization has been responsible for training, employing and educating over 10,000 at-risk youth and graduating more than 1,400 with a high school diploma since its 1989 inception. Through Mr. Duran’s continuous personal belief in and commitment to developing underprivileged youth from all walks of life, the Urban Corps of San Diego County has grown into a dynamic organization that provides a second chance to young people while preserving San Diego’s natural resources. 
 
Under his leadership, the Urban Corps had the honor of being the only conservation corps to ever receive a grant from the Smithsonian Museum to conduct a survey of all outdoor sculptures in the County of San Diego. Sam’s vision has led to Corpsmember exchange programs with the USSR, Quebec City, Canada, and Mexico as well as enduring contract work from the Port of San Diego, the City of San Diego, and a countywide recycling program that includes major contracts such as Qualcomm Stadium, PETCO Park, Cox Arena and Crickett Wireless Amphitheatre.
 
This year, Sam led the establishment of Urban Corps’ own charter school. Directly following the transition, corpsmember enrollment increased by 30% thanks to a shift to a week-on/week-off school format in which corpsmembers alternate every week with 50% attending school for five days with the other 50% a working in the community. The shift represents the most significant change in recent Urban Corps history and is providing substantially more autonomy over curriculum and school funding.
 
Sam is an active member of the California Association of Local Conservation Corps and serves as a board member of the Conservation Corps State Museum.  Among other accomplishments, in 1993, Sam served on the national task force created to advise President Bill Clinton on the creation of AmeriCorps. At Urban Corps and beyond, Sam has been a proven visionary and strategic leader who translates strategies into maximum results for youth, community, and environment.

Legacy Achievement Award Winner: Elizabeth Putnam

 

Early in her life, Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam felt the need to respond to the threats facing America’s national parks. Her senior thesis at Vassar College in 1953 proposed the development of a volunteer student conservation corps to perform essential service for these endangered natural resources. This led to the creation of The Student Conservation Association (SCA), which has become one of the largest providers of youth development and conservation service opportunities in the US.

Ms. Putnam dedicates her life to ensuring that America’s treasured but fragile public lands are preserved for future generations and that those generations become future stewards of the land. Ms. Putnam has volunteered with SCA’s leadership and staff to commit SCA to a strategic vision, emphasizing national leadership in programs that both engage young people in conservation service; i.e., hands-on work that benefits national or community interests; and highlights the capacity of conservation service to build future leaders.

Ms. Putnam remains SCA’s premier ambassador.  She is actively involved with SCA and in the environmental arena. She meets with young people, participates in community service events, and tells the inspiring story of SCA’s volunteers across the country. She has been recognized by the Department of the Interior, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Park Service, and the Garden Club of America for her achievements and her ongoing commitment to the natural world.  Her enthusiastic call to action and hard work on behalf of the nation’s public lands encouraged more than 60,000 SCA volunteers over the past 53 years. 

Ms. Putnam’s commitment to ensuring SCA volunteers and the conservation arena reflect the multiculturalism of American society led SCA to establish its Urban and Diversity Outreach, which connects youth from diverse backgrounds to nature and provides positive experiences in the outdoors. 

Each SCA member has provided valued and essential service to national and state parks, forests, refuges and urban green spaces. The results are felt on a national and at the “grassroots” community level. It is reported that more than 55% of these young people continue their engagement in conservation through career, education or volunteerism. In 1971, she presented testimony before the U.S. Congress that led to legislative approval of the Youth Conservation Corps.

In 2010, Ms. Putnam received the Presidents Citizens Medal from President Obama recognizing her for her service to the conservation and Youth Service movement. Today the fruits of her labor continue to pay off, as SCA provides an opportunity for thousands of volunteers to restore and protect the environment and gain a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Legacy Achievement Award Winner: Bruce Saito

Bruce Saito has invested 35 years of outstanding service into the Corps movement. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University in 1976, he joined the California Conservation Corps (CCC). The organization was less than a year old and the Conservation Corps movement in California was in its infancy. He was part of the team that initiated youth development programs and environmental enhancement programs in the state at a time when there were few other 501 (c)(3) non-profits in existence, and certainly none proposing a model like the CCC, which combined a high school education program with environmental training and job skills development. He rose to the level of Program Director, directing and developing work and education programs for youth.

In the area of environmental enhancement, Bruce was instrumental in coordinating emergency efforts during the Los Angeles floods and fires in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, and the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Both locally and nationally Bruce is recognized today as an expert in procuring and managing conservation corps projects.

By the mid-80s, Bruce was recruited by former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor to be part of a team to start the LA Conservation Corps. The organization started with 27 Corpsmembers participating in alternating weeks of school and work in the Young Adult Corps.

Since 1995, Bruce has served as the LA Conservation Corps’ Executive Director.  Today, along with LACC’s flagship Young Adult Corps program, Bruce oversees dozens of holistic conservation, education and support programs and services in primarily low-income communities throughout LA County, with a focus on Pico Union, East LA, South LA and Watts. In fact, the Corps is the largest urban nonprofit conservation corps in the nation, impacting over 13,000 11- to 24-year-old young people annually.

In addition to his work at the LA Conservation Corps, Bruce has served as president of The Corps Network’s Board of Directors. He has also presided over the California Association of Local Conservation Corps (CALCC), the organization that represents the 12 certified urban conservation corps from San Diego to Marin. 

He has been recognized for his service by the City and County of LA, the State of California and the federal government, and has been honored with a National Philanthropy Day Outstanding Professional Award.