A former Corpsmember starts his own conservation group

 

Where are they now? - Catching up with 2005 Corpsmember of the Year,
Diony Gamoso


Diony working on Peralta Creek

Diony Gamoso, formerly of Marin Conservation Corps (now Conservation Corps North Bay), 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 Diony and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2005 National Conference.

Diony Gamoso has always loved nature and animals. He studied wildlife biology in college and spent the first four or five years after graduation working as a wildlife field biologist. He then accepted a 3-month-long internship doing habitat restoration in San Francisco through the San Francisco Natural Areas program. Around this time, Diony was also working intermittently for the Student Conservation Association. A friend took notice of Diony’s interest in environmental preservation and suggested he might find value in working for the Marin Conservation Corps (now Conservation Corps North Bay, CCNB). Diony checked online and noticed that the Corps was hiring Crew Leaders. He decided to give the program a try.

“I thought I’d be there for maybe a year or even just six months so I could get some valuable experience under my belt and then move on,” said Diony. “I was thinking at the time that this would just be a steppingstone. But then I ended up staying there for about three years.”

During his first year with CCNB, Diony worked in the field doing flood control, fire fuel reduction, irrigation, and various other land management projects. He made it clear to his supervisors from the very beginning that his main interests were in habitat restoration and environmental education. To give Diony some teaching experience, the Corps offered him a position with Project Regeneration; CCNB’s summer youth program for Marin County high school kids. Diony organized educational field trips and led program participants in service learning projects. Diony went back to being a Crew Leader at the end of the summer, but his supervisors wanted to help him in fulfilling his ambition to become a teacher. He was soon promoted to Education Department Assistant.

“I felt like the culture of the Corps was to find opportunities for people. Any time there was a new project that came along, or a new position they thought I might be interested in, the Corps would say, ‘Hey, you should apply to this!’” said Diony. “Basically they just kept on opening up new opportunities for me within the Corps and I really felt useful and needed, so I stuck around.”

Diony spent the rest of his time with the Corps in the Education Department. As a field teacher he taught CCNB crews about watershed, habitats, fire ecology – basically any of the science related to their field work. Diony also helped in the classroom teaching English as a Second Language to Latino students and tutoring Corpsmembers in math, science, and reading. During his last six months with CCNB, Diony was simultaneously enrolled at Dominican University to get his California teaching credential in secondary school science. He left the Corps in 2006 to focus on his studies. After receiving his teaching credential, Diony spent a little over a year teaching physical science and biology at Berkeley High School. However, he soon decided that as much as he valued education, he was happiest in the field.

For the past three years, Diony has worked seasonally as a biological science technician doing habitat restoration in the Presidio park of San Francisco. He took the job because he felt it would give him more experience in conservation while also providing plenty of time for him to pursue other projects. Diony has taken advantage of this extra time to reestablish a creek group in his neighborhood in Oakland. The group was established about a decade ago, but interest soon faded. Diony can take credit for reviving Friends of Peralta Creek and turning it into the growing organization that it is today. Friends of Peralta Creek has organized field trips for over 300 youth and has engaged between 50 – 100 adult volunteers in events and creek restoration projects.

“The focus is on bringing native plants back to the Peralta Creek watershed. But combined with that is education about watersheds in general and how we can protect the creeks from being polluted, and how we’re connected to the ocean through the creek,” said Diony. “…I became interested in this kind of education as I worked in the environmental field. I think I realized just how disconnected so many people are from the nature that’s around them. So I guess I had a desire to make a difference and get kids involved in learning about all this nature that’s right there.”          

Diony says the skills he learned at CCNB are definitely still relevant to his work in the Presidio and with Friends of Peralta Creek. It was at CCNB that he learned how to build willow walls and brush mattresses. Diony still teaches youth and volunteers about these erosion control mechanisms and still uses them in his work today. Diony was recently offered a year-round, fulltime job doing habitat restoration in the Presidio for the next two years.    

Diony is confident he would’ve found his way into conservation even if he had never found CCNB, but he says he is grateful that the Corps helped expand his horizons and gave him a place to get hands-on experience in the work he now does for a living.          

“The Corps changed my perspective a lot about people with different backgrounds...it helped me connect with a lot of people who I might not normally associate with in my regular social circles,” said Diony. “I loved the sense of community there. I would say there was a certain kind of love in the Corps – not necessarily like a warm and fuzzy kind of love, but in the sense that everyone really cared for each other and went the extra mile to help each other out.”

To youth considering joining a Corps, Diony says:     

“a) Good idea! I got so much out of it and I think that practical work experience is so important….I felt that the Corps was a great place for getting some solid job skills. It’s just very good, practical experience…and b) My words of wisdom would be that you should let people know what it is that you hope to get out of your Corps experience and where you’re trying to go next. My experience with the Corps was that as soon as they found out what my goals were, every opportunity that arose that was related to what I was interested in, they would offer it to me. I was very thankful for that.”

 

 

"A desire to do things that benefit more than just me" -- Patricia Bohnwagner's Corps Experience

Where are they now? - Catching up with 2005 Corpsmember of the Year,
Patricia Bohnwagner

Patricia Bohnwagner, formerly of Urban Corps of San Diego, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2005 for her commitment to service. Read below to find out what she's been up to since accepting her award, or find out more about Patricia and her Corps experience by reading her bio from our 2005 National Conference.

Patricia Bohnwagner learned about Urban Corps of San Diego from an advertisement she found in the PennySaver. The ad included a long list of skills that a young person could gain by becoming a Corpsmember. Patricia had her high school diploma, but she was unsure what she wanted to do with her future. Maybe working for Urban Corps would give her some direction. Patricia started at Urban Corps in November 2002…and she ended up staying there for the next seven years.

Patricia was a Corpsmember when she first joined Urban Corps, but she was eventually promoted to Supervisor. She ended up working in nearly every department at the Corps. She led a crew in repainting walls and buildings for the Graffiti 

Department. She helped find new clients for the Corps’ Recycling Department. Patricia also planted trees in the Urban Forestry Department, and she helped find employment for Corpsmembers as a Supervisor for the Corps’ internship program. At one point, as Supervisor for the Corps’ educational program, Patricia taught elementary school children about power line safety and the benefits of trees. This experience helped her overcome a fear of public speaking. Looking back at her years with the Corps, she was hard-pressed to come up with a favorite project or assignment. “Really, everything I did there seemed to make a positive difference in some way,” said Patricia. “…I still drive by areas where I have helped plant trees, worked during a community clean up event, or removed graffiti and I feel proud of what I’ve done.”

It was Patricia’s positive experience with Urban Corps that helped her make the decision to stay in San Diego for as long as she has. She is originally from Massachusetts, but she moved to California to live with her sister and help take care of her nephew. Both her sister and brother-in-law were in the Navy; Patricia first came to California when her brother-in-law was deployed and her sister was left to care for her nephew alone.

As Patricia says, she and her sister “had a rollercoaster of a relationship” when they were younger. Patricia was at one point kicked out of the house for six months. It was only with the help of friends that she was able to avoid homelessness. When her sister decided to leave the Navy and move back east, Patricia stayed in California to see where her job with the Corps could take her. She had to sleep on friends’ couches after her sister moved, but she saved enough money to eventually get a shared apartment and buy her first car.

 “Thank goodness I’ve always had a great support system of friends,” said Patricia.

Now that it’s been over three years since she worked for the Corps, Patricia can look back at the experience and say that it helped change her outlook. It helped her decide what she wanted to do with her life.

“One thing that has stuck with me through the years is a desire to do things that benefit more than just me. A sense of serving and doing what I can to make the community better, or doing what I can to help other people,” she said. “I also gained so much knowledge about the environment and basic work skills that have helped me immeasurably through the years. It was hard work, but the skills, knowledge and experience I gained during my time at Urban Corps have undoubtedly had a major, positive influence on where I am in life today.”

That sense of wanting to give back helped inspire Patricia to become an EMT. She currently serves as a medic in the California Army National Guard (CAARNG). Her primary job is as a United States Postal Carrier. As part of the Guard, Patricia teaches a Combat Lifesaver course for troops preparing to deploy. She herself served as a medic in Iraq for a year.

Patricia is in the process of switching over to the Army Reserves. She will soon have the opportunity to be sent to a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) program in Texas. After completing the program, she hopes to return to California and get her associate’s degree as a Registered Nurse. She currently has over 30 college credits, but it’s been difficult for her to maintain a regular school schedule with her long work hours and the deployment to Iraq. After earning her associate’s degree, Patricia should only be three or four semesters away from a bachelor’s degree. Patricia’s goal is to complete her bachelor’s degree and find employment as a nurse within the next six years.

Patricia saved enough money during her deployment to move her mom out to California and furnish a new apartment for the two of them. She is currently living comfortably with her mom and a recently adopted shelter dog. She is fairly confident that her time in the Corps played a big part in getting her where she is today.

“[If I hadn’t joined the Corps] I can’t say I’d be on a horrible path or anything, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had as many successes as I have. I would probably be working at a meaningless job and perhaps wouldn’t have joined the military,” said Patricia. “I would for sure be a lot further from my goals than I am now, and wouldn’t have realized all this potential in myself, since that was due to my time in the Corps and the great staff that worked there.”

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

“With anything in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Only you can make the choice to either better yourself and your situation, or just accept what comes your way. BE PROACTIVE! Do your best at everything you do and do the right thing, and you won’t have as many regrets or disappointments. And don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t go the way you want or as quickly as you want. Life happens and it’s hard to move up, but it can be done. Stick to it and never give up. Stay positive and don’t let anyone bring you down or tell you that you can’t do something.”

 

 

"I went through what they went through and I became someone different" - a former Corpsmember helps young offenders get back on their feet


Where are they now? – Catching up with 2011 Corpsmember of the Year,
Andrew McKee 


Andrew and his crew of NYC Justice Corps members take a break from their work on a community center to pose for a picture

Andrew McKee, formerly a Corpsmember with Phipps CDC/NYC Justice Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2011 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 Andrew and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2011 National Conference.

Giving back to the community is very important to Andrew McKee. He is especially dedicated to helping youth with criminal backgrounds make positive changes in their lives. Andrew has firsthand experience with just how challenging life can be for a young man with a record.

Andrew was convicted of a felony and served time at Riker’s Island; New York City’s main jail complex. When he was released from jail on probation, Andrew worried that the stigma of a conviction would keep him from finding gainful employment. He was still in his early 20s and had his whole life ahead of him, but his self-esteem was damaged by the thought that his employability might always be in question. Things turned around for Andrew when his probation officer referred him to NYC Justice Corps – a job corps that helps youth previously involved in the justice system build important life skills and gain work experience through addressing community needs.

Andrew served in the Corps for six months, from January 2010 – June 2010. Looking back on the experience he says what stands out in his memory was his participation in renovating the basement of Labor Bathgate Daycare Center in the Bronx. With decaying, water-stained walls and broken ceiling tiles, the basement was unsafe for the children. Andrew and his fellow crewmembers completed all the necessary repairs and beautified the basement with paint and child-appropriate decorations.

 “It was satisfying to just interact with my fellow cohort members and actually gain some work experience. I’d had jobs before, but nothing like that. Just the whole experience of working together with my peers and doing something positive - that stands out to me,” said Andrew. “Every chance I get or when I go past there I like to check up on the work I did. It’s been almost three years and I still take pride in it.”

While with the Corps, Andrew was placed in a prestigious internship with the New York City Department of Probation. He spent three months serving as an assistant to the Commissioner’s Office, visiting courts in all five of New York City’s boroughs to collect data from juvenile probationers. The information Andrew gathered, as well as his personal insights into the justice system, guided decisions made by Andrew’s superiors about what kinds of reforms were needed in the juvenile probation system.

After graduating from the Justice Corps, Andrew got a job handling internships and doing clerical work for New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development. However, after two years in this position, Andrew realized that the place where he really wanted to work was the Justice Corps.

“I felt like I could use my experience there,” said Andrew. “Having been a Corpsmember and actually coming from the same place that these guys, these new Corpsmembers, are coming from…I wanted to just give my own testimony and feedback and show them that they can do something with their lives. I’ve been there and I sat in the exact same seats that they sit in. I went through what they went through and I became someone different.”

Andrew took a job with the Corps as a Site Supervisor. Every day he leads a group of about 8 to 12 youth, ages 18 – 24, in a community benefit project similar to the daycare renovation project he helped complete when he was a Corpsmember. Most of the skills Andrew teaches his crews are skills he learned with the Corps over two years ago.

“My job entails supervising our participants on a worksite. I do their time sheets [and] I teach them how to do carpentry…I’m just teaching them basic skills like how to do plastering or floor tiling - it depends on what the job is. These guys are beginners and I’m just helping them get their work experience.”

In addition to working with the Corps, Andrew is enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He says he has taken a wide array of classes with plans to receive an associate’s degree by the end of 2013. He hopes to then get his bachelor’s degree.

When he’s not at work or school, Andrew likes to indulge in his favorite hobby: photography.

“Yes. I definitely still do photography. I try to make it a part of my free time any chance I get,” said Andrew. “I take pictures of pretty much everything. Anything I see that interests me I’ll take a photo of it. I also have a strong interest in studio photography.”

Andrew hopes to soon turn his hobby into a profession. He wants to open his own photography studio and do freelance work on the side. While his money would come from putting together packages and taking pictures in his studio, Andrew would also love to send photos to publications or use his camera to document red carpet events.

Completing his degrees and starting a photography business are Andrew’s two main goals, but right now he is happy to help young offenders get back on their feet. To youth thinking about joining a Corps, particularly a civic justice corps, Andrew says:

“If you really want to change then you should take the program seriously. There’s not a lot of opportunities out there that provide these resources and services. A program like this that offers work experience and internships - there are just a whole lot of doors that can be opened for you, especially when you’re young and you’re in this population, 18 – 24-year-olds. You have to take advantage of this opportunity and take it seriously.”

 

The Story of how a Former AmeriCorps Member Became a Pink Bunny


Where are they now? – Catching up with 2005 Corpsmember of the Year,
Kayje Booker

Kayje Booker, a former member of the Washington Service Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2005 for her commitment to service. Read below to find out what she's been up to since accepting her award, or find out more about Kayje and her Corps experience by reading her bio from our 2005 National Conference.

Kayje Booker, one of The Corps Network’s 2005 Corpsmembers of the Year, is now a bunny. A Pink Bunny, that is. Kayje works for the organization Forward Montana, leading the Pink Bunny Army – a statewide organization of voter registration volunteers who dress in pink t-shirts and bunny ears in an effort to engage youth in the political process. 

“At Forward Montana we believe very strongly in costume-based democracy,” said Kayje. “The Pink Bunnies register people to vote, specifically focusing on young people. For a lot of them it’s their first time registering to vote and the thought has been that your first time participating in democracy should be fun and special. Instead of just having a random person come up to you with a clipboard and tell you that you should register to vote, this is a more exciting way to do it.”

Kayje is proud to report that the Pink Bunnies managed to register over 11,400 Montana voters for the 2012 election. She says her army of floppy-eared volunteers is now well recognized: people in Montana seem to know to seek out the Bunnies if they need to register to vote.

Though she started her position with Forward Montana fairly recently, Kayje is hardly a stranger to getting youth more involved in their communities. Her first efforts to promote civic engagement were part of her experience as an AmeriCorps member with Washington Service Corps. Kayje joined the Corps in 2002. She had recently graduated from college and spent a few months working a series of odd jobs in Montana. AmeriCorps seemed like it would provide more meaningful work than a job at a pizza place or a coffee shop. What really pushed Kayje to join, however, was a phone call with a project coordinator from Washington Service Corps.

“She heard I hadn’t decided what I was going to do yet. She had me get on the phone and we talked. She basically sold me on it. She told me about how I would be creating a new program and she got me really excited about the potential of what we could do,” said Kayje.

That new project was an afterschool program for the Westway neighborhood of Federal Way Washington. Kayje and another Corpsmember ended up building the program entirely from scratch; a particularly impressive feat when you consider all the components the program needed to include. It had to serve children in kindergarten through sixth grade, and it needed to have some kind of civic engagement component. It was a tall order, but, with the help of dedicated community members, Kayje and her AmeriCorps partner were able to make the afterschool program such a success that it still operates today. They managed to get computers and internet donated. They collected a small library. They even organized a block party that attracted large crowds and involved a bicycle giveaway for Westway children. Kayje says that the bike raffle was one of the most memorable experiences of her time in AmeriCorps.

“There was this little girl who was so sweet who came from a pretty rough home and she had seen the bicycles all week and she was so excited about them,” said Kayje. “We had a raffle for the bicycles and what she didn’t know was that we held one in reserve – the one she had been eyeing all week. So instead of raffling that one off we presented it to her at the end and she was just so excited and couldn’t believe her luck. That was a really wonderful moment of seeing how something so simple could give somebody so much joy.”

Creating a civic engagement project that could be interesting and manageable for kindergarteners as well as sixth graders wasn’t easy, but Kayje and her partner eventually found success in getting the afterschool program involved in building a community garden and cleaning up litter. After completing her term in Westway, Kayje became a Team Leader with Washington Service Corps and helped AmeriCorps programs across Washington institute similar civic engagement projects. The next year, from 2004 – 2005, Kayje was an AmeriCorps VISTA with Washington Service Corps.

“The biggest thing I did as a VISTA was trying to figure out housing for AmeriCorps members,” said Kayje. “We were getting a lot of feedback in Washington Service Corps that finding a place to live was actually one of the biggest hurdles for people who wanted to do AmeriCorps. So I found this guy who had this huge house and we created an AmeriCorps house in Seattle. I did a bunch of surveying of members to figure out exactly what the issues were and I created some resources. We started a kind of Craigslist website so [AmeriCorps members] could find roommates. I also put together a list of all the factors they might want to consider when choosing a place to live.”

After her term as a VISTA, Kayje went straight to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley. She earned her master’s degree in Range Management and a PhD in Environmental Science and Policy Management. She spent a few months as a freelance consultant for an international development organization, but she eventually found her way back to working in civic engagement and youth outreach at Forward Montana.

“I would like to continue working with the organization I’m working with now. I’d like to continue to get people engaged and involved in the political process,” said Kayje. “I’d like to at some point have maybe more of an energy or environmental focus within that, but I am very happy with where I am now and I’d like to continue to work in this aspect of helping other people make a difference.”

To young people thinking about joining a service and conservation corps, Kayje says:

“It’s one of the most intense experiences that you’ll ever have in terms of highs and lows, but it’s all worth it in the end…One big thing I think AmeriCorps did for me was show me how you can live on very little and still have a full life. When I did it we were making $800 a month…I think it [was] a very valuable experience that everybody should have at some point to give them empathy for people that are in that situation and to show them that you don’t need a lot of money to have a good life.”

 

 

The AmeriCorps NCCC Experience: Hearing about it from a Corpsmember Turned Staff Member

 

Where are they now? – Catching up with 2007 Corpsmember of the Year,
Alana Svensen


Alana Svensen, a former member of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2007 for her commitment to service. Read below to find out what she's been up to since accepting her award, or find out more about Alana and her Corps experience by reading her bio from our 2007 National Conference.

Alana Svensen graduated from college with a chemistry degree, but she knew well before leaving school that she didn’t want to pursue a career in science. She had not been entirely happy working in the lab throughout college and was sure she wanted to work with people instead of with flasks and chemicals. But where to turn?

Alana came across a list of AmeriCorps programs and was instantly intrigued by the variety of service opportunities offered by the National Civilian Community Corps. She joined NCCC hoping to gain job skills in many different fields so she could get a better sense of what she was good at and what she wanted to do with her future. She certainly ended up having a wide range of experiences as both a Corpsmember and a Team Leader with NCCC: among other things, Alana helped coordinate disaster relief efforts; built homes; managed educational programs for children; and became a Certified Wild Land Firefighter. In the end, however, it was NCCC itself that Alana really liked.

“NCCC was able to expose me to a bunch of different things and really I just fell in love with the program and what it does for young people in helping them find their way,” said Alana, who is now a staff member with NCCC in Iowa.

These days, Alana plans the logistics for nonprofits and government agencies that hire NCCC crews. It’s fun for her to think of how she started at NCCC just like the crewmembers she now helps coordinate. Her first rotation as a Corpsmember with NCCC was from February 2005 to November 2005, during which she helped manage the first wave of NCCC members that responded to Hurricane Katrina. Alana oversaw a group of 25 Corpmembers that mainly worked in the kitchen of a Mississippi school that had been turned into a shelter. 

“We didn’t have electricity so we had to limit the number of times we went into the freezer…we needed to keep things cool as long as possible so we could continue to cook them,” said Alana. “There was this one lady who dropped her plate and she burst out crying. And we were like, ‘It’s okay! We have more! We’ll get you another plate!’ But she was like, ‘There are so many people that are starving and I wasted all this food.’ We didn’t want to explain to her that we had food that was rotting because we didn’t have electricity. It was just a very interesting experience.” 

While deployed with the Red Cross in the Gulf Coast, Alana also helped coordinate loading and staffing emergency response vehicles. After graduating as a Corpsmember, Alana came back to NCCC as a Team Leader and became an assistant to the director of NCCC’s then newly opened Gulf Coast office.

Hurricane Katrina played a big part in shaping Alana’s Corps experience, but there were certainly moments during her other rotations with NCCC that she feels left a profound impact on her. She remembers how inspired she was by the passionate director of a struggling summer camp that Corpsmembers helped keep afloat. She remembers feeling empowered when she was left in charge of 20 Habitat for Humanity volunteers and had to teach them how to read building plans.

“I didn’t necessarily see it at first, but as I went through the program more and more I realized how it was starting to shape me as a young professional,” said Alana. “I love the idea of how NCCC goes out into communities and helps them with what they define as their needs. We don’t define a community’s need or an agency’s need – they come to us and say, ‘this is an area we’d like help in.’”

Alana is very happy with her staff position at NCCC and she hopes to eventually move up in the organization. She has considered going to graduate school to get a master’s degree in public administration. If she leaves NCCC, Alana is fairly certain she would work for a nonprofit, or maybe do international work with USAID.

When she’s not at work, Alana has been involved in various leadership development activities. She is an officer for her local Toastmaster’s club and she has found time to coach a youth soccer team for the past four years.

“It’s been fun to watch them grow up. They were 5th graders when I started and this year they’re in 9th grade. So those sassy teenage years have been entertaining to me,” said Alana.

Alana says she really enjoys watching Corpsmembers grow within the NCCC program, too. She remembers watching one young man who was very shy and quiet when he came to NCCC have the confidence to speak at the Corpsmember graduation.

To any young people considering joining a Corps, Alana says:

“I would encourage them to do it, but I’d tell them to make sure they check out the different types of programs. Just because one program isn’t a fit for you, it doesn’t mean national service isn’t a fit for you.”

Leaving Life on the Streets for a Life Dedicated to Service

 

Where are they now? -- Catching up with 2007 Corpsmember of the Year,
Cop Lieu


Cop Lieu, a former student with The Work Group, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2007 for his commitment to service and self change. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out 

more about Cop and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2007 National Conference.

It took a lot of courage for Cop Lieu to get where he is today. Cop came to America with his family via Thailand after trekking across his native Cambodia by foot. Once in the States, he got caught up in gangs and spent time in juvenile detention. What helped Cop turn things around was joining The Work Group in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Just getting through the programs at The Work Group, however, required Cop to show a good deal of personal strength.

“I still had problems with people I used to be friends with. It was almost like I was a rubber band: [my friends] were trying to pull me back to the street while The Work Group was trying to pull me away from it,” said Cop. “The same people that had been my friends pretty much became my enemies. They would say stuff like, ‘You’re too good for us now. You don’t come around anymore. You don’t want to do drugs with us.’ That stood out for me because it took a lot of strength on my part to avoid drama. Sometimes I’d have to change up my route to school because I knew where they hung out and I knew they’d try to make drama.”

Cop is still with The Work Group, but he is no longer a student. These days Cop is a Community Service Supervisor, leading classes of up to 16 students through the same program that helped him leave the streets just a few years ago.

“I train and teach kids basic skills to help them find and keep a job. I teach them skills like being on-time, and learning how to battle 8-hour shifts. I teach them new skills like shaking hands and keeping eye contact,” said Cop. “I have firsthand experience from where they came from. I’m from the inner city and I had trouble growing up. I got in trouble with the law, but I was able to pull myself away from the street and…try to be around positive people… That motivated me to help these young people who are in a position that I was in and help bring them to where I’m at now. It’s really rewarding to see that some of these youth can transition from being in the streets to being more professional and stable.”

This past May, Cop celebrated five years with The Work Group. He came to the organization when he was 17 after hearing about it from his probation officer and other teens he met while in the justice system. Cop was expelled from the regular school system, but he still wanted to further his education. It was at The Work Group that he earned his high school diploma and the respect of his supervisors. His success led to his being hired as a “peer reinforcer” for The Work Group – a position in which Cop helped motivate the teen and young adult participants in the program. Cop took time off after a year as a peer reinforcer, but he eventually applied for his current position and was rehired by The Work Group.

Having the opportunity to mentor youth means a lot to Cop. He believes that what made The Work Group’s program such a successful experience for him was the access to positive adult role models.

“When I came to The Work Group, they showed me attention, they showed me love, and they pretty much just helped me through my struggles. They gave me faith in the future,” said Cop. “They showed me that even though I got in trouble and I felt like the world was over, there are more opportunities out there. They just helped me side-by-side with my personal problems. That kept me away from trouble.”

One of Cop’s proudest contributions to The Work Group is his involvement with the organization’s summer inclusive program. Cop has spent the last three summers helping plan and facilitate the program, which operates with support from The College of New Jersey. A professor, who regularly trained staff at The Work Group on how to help students with disabilities, recognized that Cop – with his patience and people skills – would be the perfect person to help make the inclusive crew a reality. Working with people with physical and developmental disabilities has become one of Cop’s greatest passions. He sees potential in all of his inclusive crew students; he says it’s exciting to see how some students who have previously only socialized with other disabled youth really open up when working alongside the rest of the students at The Work Group.

“It’s just fantastic,” said Cop. “I’ve seen a lot of growth and some kids - they just want to come back.”

Cop wants to go to college to earn a degree that could help him pursue a career in helping the disabled. For now, however, he wants to continue with his position at The Work Group and hopefully see the inclusive program offered year-round instead of just during the summer.

In addition to earning his high school diploma and finding rewarding employment, during his five years with The Work Group Cop also received his driver’s license and obtained his American citizenship. Cop says that without The Work Group he would probably be in the same position that many of his old friends are in: unemployed and without much to offer potential employers.

“I’d be a lump on a log – just staying home and doing illegal activities,” said Cop.

To young people thinking about joining a Corps like The Work Group, Cop says:

“It never hurts to try. Signing up for something like The Work Group can change your life personally and professionally. It’s a life-changing experience…Pretty much, the staff here will go to bat for you, and they will stick out limbs for you. If you don’t join it’s just an opportunity missed.”

 

 

 

 

Making a Positive Transition from the Marine Corps to a Conservation Corps


Where are they now? – Catching up with 2011 Corpsmember of the Year, 

Chris Thomas



Chris took this photo while 60 feet up on a utility pole

Chris Thomas, a former member of the California Conservation Corps (CCC), won Corpsmember of the Year in 2011 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 Chris and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2011 National Conference.

Chris Thomas does not hesitate to volunteer his time. Now a power lineman, Chris immediately went to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to help get the electricity flowing again. While in school to become a lineman, Chris volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes for low-income families. Before school, he gave a lot of time to the Red Cross. And prior to any of these acts of volunteerism, Chris served in the United States Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Chris has faced many challenges in his life. He and his three siblings were raised by their mother, a cervical cancer survivor, who had to work three jobs to support the family by herself. During Chris’s four years of service in the Marines (beginning in 2005), he was wounded twice. He received shrapnel in the chest and was stabbed once, leading to a medical discharge. It was soon after this that he joined the California Conservation Corps (CCC) in 2009.

Chris, who is now 24, heard about the CCC from a cousin who served as a Corpsmember. The Corps seemed like a logical transition from military-life to civilian-life, but the change ended up being more difficult than Chris had anticipated.

“I had anger issues, quick to snap. Thought everyone should talk, work, act just like I did. If you didn't, then just get out of my way,” said Chris. “The CCC helped me curve that Marine Corps mentality, which in civilian life is a good thing.”

Through the Conservation Corps, Chris learned how to accept and embrace diversity. His CCC experiences helped him ease out of only being surrounded by other Marines who shared the same strict lifestyle and discipline. Looking back, Chris says his greatest learning experience came when he transitioned from working with the Corps in Chico, California to working with the Sacramento Regional Conservation Corps. 

“Working in Sacramento put all that I learned to the test. In Chico I dealt with middle class white people with different backgrounds, but [we] still could find common ground,” said Chris. “In Sacramento, these kids were…cliché gangsters. Saggy pants, if it weren't for curse words I don't think they could complete a sentence…Before the CCC I would have been yelling, and firing left and right. But I was able to keep a calm head and make the crew I ran the most respected in the company.”

Chris says his background with the Marines taught him the meaning of hard work and gave him the building blocks to be a strong leader. As a Crew Leader with the CCC, Chris led others in planting trees, habitat restoration projects, and fire fuel reduction programs. He logged nearly 250 volunteer hours, well above the 48 hours the Corps requires. It was as a result of this dedication that he earned the Silver Presidential Service Award from the Corporation for National Service in September 2010.

After leaving the CCC in 2011, Chris worked as a Supervisor with the Sacramento Regional Conservation Corps. He then moved to Meridian, Idaho to attend North Western Lineman College, where he served as class president. After earning his certifications from NLC, Chris moved to Big Spring, Texas, where he is currently working as a power lineman. He does everything from setting up utility poles to hooking up transformers.

Chris isn’t sure what his life would look like today without the California Conservation Corps. Chris will never be able to forget all of the different people he met with the Corps, particularly his mentor and former supervisor, Clayton Forbes. He says he would love to eventually return to the CCC to get back to doing the kind of work he misses and to help other young people in the way he was helped.

“I have no idea where I would be without the Corps,” said Chris. “Honestly I would probably be locked up for hurting someone. Or possibly working for some private security company overseas.” 

To young people thinking about joining a Corps, Chris says, “Take everything you can from the Corps. Some training comes up? – go. A crew needs an extra hand for a spike? – go. Although at times Corps life might seem arduous and mundane, you will miss it.”

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.

 

 

 

"Little things that the Conservation Corps changes about you that make a big difference" - Kenny Mai, Corpsmember of the Year 2009


Where are they now? - Catching up 2009 Corpsmember of the Year,

Kenny Mai

Kenneth Mai, a former member of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2009 for his commitment to service and self change. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about Kenny and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2009 national conference.

Kenny Mai admits that he was once headed down a bad path. He was affiliated with a gang when he was a teenager and experimented with drugs and alcohol. He faced homelessness and an unstable family life. Kenny, who moved to Los Angeles from Belize when he was 13, also dropped out of high school due to his frustrations as a non-native English speaker. Fortunately, he was able to turn things around with the help of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC).

Kenny joined LACC in 2007 after hearing about the program from a friend. By this point Kenny had already participated in Job Corps and earned his GED. However, he still saw room for self-improvement and needed to break ties with his gang background. LACC’s program, which offers youth the chance to go back to school while also gaining work experience and earning a little money, seemed too good to pass up. While he was with LACC, Kenny became competent in carpentry, roofing, plumbing, irrigation and drywall installation. In addition to job skills, Kenny also learned important life skills.

“They taught me really everything that I know now. They’re the ones that took me out of the streets. It was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had,” said Kenny. “The most important thing I learned was to be a leader and I got work skills. They taught me how to be on time. A lot of the training they gave me I’m still using today.”

These days, Kenny works for the Koreatown Youth and Community Center. With KYCC, Kenny has planted trees, removed graffiti from public places, and participated in community cleanups and landscaping projects. Kenny is also currently contracted through KYCC with Southern California Edison’s Energy Conservation Program. Kenny works in an Edison warehouse driving forklifts and managing inventory, but he mainly helps organize crews that go out and provide free retrofitting services to Edison customers.

Kenny left the Los Angeles Conservation Corps in 2009 and went straight to KYCC, but he says that his experience with LACC still impacts his day-to-day life.

“It’s funny because me and my coworker always talk about this. There are little things that the Conservation Corps changes about you that make a big difference,” said Kenny. “Now I can’t litter! I always find a trashcan because I’ve done the work of cleaning up trash. I’ve gone from not worrying about it to seeing how littering is a real problem and I’m adding to it. Now I’m more conservative. It used to be ‘whatever,’ but now I’m thinking ‘save the planet.’ Now I’ve got to worry about my kids.”

Looking back at his time with LACC, Kenny is most proud of a tree planting project he participated in near his home. The Corps’ goal was to plant 500 trees in a single day, but they ended up planting 600. Kenny says the trees are still standing and it’s a great feeling to walk past them.

Kenny is also proud of his time as president of the Conservation Corps’ Leadership Council. He says his presidency was an important learning experience that taught him leadership skills he uses today. During his presidency, Kenny managed to change how the council is run and organized.

“When I started, they were paying the Corpsmembers to be in the council – giving them a stipend. But I said, I don’t think the leaders should be getting paid to be leaders. I didn’t think they should get the stipend – if they want to be in the council, they should join out of their own will,” said Kenny. “Before that, there were like six people in the council all getting the stipend, and when I came in there was like 18 people in the council just a month later and they weren’t getting paid. That was really cool. They inspired me and I inspired them.”

Through his position on the Leadership Council, Kenny became an important recruiter for LACC. He reached out to youth who were dealing with many of the same issues he had experienced before joining the Corps.

“I got to get a lot of Corpsmembers off the street and keep them in the programs. Because when they saw me doing it, they could say ‘if he can do it, I can do it,’” said Kenny. “I would tell them about how they can learn to be a leader, and they can learn work skills, and they can do their community service part. They can have mentors there. What we go through in the street, it was the same for the people that work [at LACC]. Many of the staff were Corpsmembers, so what you’ve been through – they’ve been through.”

Kenny is busy with KYCC and Southern California Edison, but he still finds time to volunteer. Recently, he has helped construct a new community garden near his home. He hopes to eventually go back to school to earn a business degree – he has thought about one day opening his own small business, perhaps a carwash. Kenny also still hopes to work with LACC, the organization that he feels changed his life.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I wouldn’t have these work skills,” said Kenny. “I’d probably be in jail, to tell you the truth. I wouldn’t be working. I would be in the streets with a gang or something if I didn’t get into the Conservation Corps.”

Kenny is now 26-years-old. He has one son and a second son on the way.

Pages