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.” 


Conservation Corps Exchange Program: New Mexico to Texas

Picture taken from the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps Facebook page: RMYC members visiting the American YouthWorks Corps in Austin, Texas

Austin’s American YouthWorks’ Texas Conservation Corps program is hosting a youth crew from Taos, New Mexico at Bastrop State Park this week.

(Press Release from American YouthWorks - November 7, 2012)

Austin, TX -  Austin’s American YouthWorks’ Texas Conservation Corps program is participating in an exchange that brings youth from Taos’ Rocky Mountain Youth Corps program to Bastrop State Park for a week of work rebuilding the park’s trails.  As the first part of the exchange, the Texas crew worked in the Carson National Forest near Taos, NM last month.

The Texas program has been working hard for one year to bring the central Texas State Park back to it’s former glory after last year’s Labor Day fire.  They have rebuilt trails, felled hazard trees, protected park culverts and other infrastructure from flood damage, managed volunteer days, and fashioned the park’s drought and fire killed trees into new park footbridges.  The crew is a part of American YouthWork’s Texas Conservation Corps.  There are similar Conservation Corps programs nationwide, especially across the American West, and many of them get together to share best practices.  During one of these sessions, the idea for a crew exchange was born.  The American YouthWorks team travelled to Taos on October 21st to spend a week of sub-freezing nights in the mountains of northern New Mexico.  They worked as a chainsaw crew alongside the Taos-based Rocky Mountain Youth Corps on a hazard and diseased tree thinning project in a mixed conifer forest in the Carson National Forest. 

On Monday, November 5 the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crew travelled to Bastrop State Park and joined the American YouthWorks crew to complete additional trail work for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at Bastrop State Park.  They will be working on reconstruction of trail footbridges that were lost in the fire.  At the end of their week, they will also spend Saturday with the Travis County Audubon Society installing hundreds of new native plants in east Austin’s Blair Woods Preserve.


Washington Conservation Corps Responds to Five Wildfires

So far this season, crews from the Washington Conservation Corps have responded to five wildfires.

The Corps currently has three 10-person crews contributing to the firefighting efforts in Eastern Washington. Earlier this summer, during the second week of July, a crew spent five days coordinating camp logistics for the effort to fight the Navarre Coulee fire near Entiat,Washington.

Among other things, crewmembers served meals, and supplied equipment to the fire line. At the end of August, the corps provided similar services to help in the efforts to fight the Taylor Bridge Fire near Cle Elum, Washington. Currently, corpsmembers are responding to the Highway 141 fire near White Salmon in the Columbia Gorge, as well as the Manila/Columbia Complex Fire near Grand Coulee, Washington. They are also in the process of deploying a 10-person crew to the Okanogan Complex of fires near Twisp. Crewmembers are assisting in camp management, equipment and supply delivery, engine crew work and line construction.

Read more about the Corps' efforts on their blog.

USFS Prescribed Fire Gets Assistance from Oconaluftee Job Corps CCC

From Holly Krake, MSEd, Oconaluftee Job Corps CCC Liaison Specialist

Bryson City, NC – Deep in the Nantahala Gorge, Forestry Conservation students from the Oconaluftee Job Corps CCC partnered with local Forest Service fire staff to put in miles of hand dug fire line through the forest. Tackling steep slopes of over 60 percent, students used specialized wildland fire hand tools such as the Pulaski and McCloud to construct the line down to bare mineral soil in eight inch deep trenches. With many years of wildland fire experience, Cheoah Ranger District Assistant Fire Management Officer, Randall Sellers, knows how important this task is. “Establishing a good fire line is essential to having a burn go as we want. Difficult terrain and fuel types force a wildland fire fighter to adapt his or her approach as they go” said Sellers.

For students, the experience provides an excellent hands-on training in some of the day to day field work done in the Forest Service. As part of Oconaluftee’s Forestry program, all students have a goal to complete 360 work-based learning hours using the skills and certifications they have earned. Many are also put in challenging leadership positions that mirror real world situations. “In this project I’m a squad boss over three other students so I have to work the line, motivate others, and watch out for safety hazards all at the same time. I’ve never had this kind of responsibility before and I’m learning it can be tough but great- this stuff is important” said Forestry student Jake Brock.

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2009 Project of the Year: Reducing Wildfire Threat in New Mexico

Winner: Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, in partnership with the Southwest Region of the National Forest Service, works diligently to reduce the threat of large, high intensity wildfires by reestablishing pre-existing fire regimes, and improving the use of small diamter trees. RMYC has been involved in the Collaborative Forest Restoratoin Program (CFRP) in Largo Canyon just outside of Questa, NM, a community at high risk of a wildfire threat.

The efforts of RMYC Crews have reduced the threat of wildfires by carrying out a thinning treatment in a Wild Land-Urban-Interface (WUI) area on the threshold between the town, private, and Forest Service land. Through community planning meetings, RMYC has identified a diverse and balanced group to help design, implement, and monitor the Largo Canyon CFRP.

Corpsmembers are trained and complete ecological monitoring activities within the project area. Additionally, RMYC has created local employment opportunities for youth and provided training opportunities relevant to project accomplishments. Improvement to the watershed by returning ecosystems to healthier conditions, opportunity for local youth to gain valuable job training and experience, as well as the distribution of firewood, meeting local community needs are just a few of the positive outcomes of this project. 

2012 Project of the Year: San Diego Fire Fuel Reduction Program


Winner: Urban Corps of San Diego

When constructing work/learn service projects, youth conservation corps must assess a community’s needs. In San Diego, wildfires pose a constant threat.

In the spring of 2011, Urban Corps of San Diego County’s “Fire Fuel Reduction” program, or FFR, helped clear a path to a better future for more than 300 Corpsmembers. They received paid on-the-job training in the area of fire fuel reduction, while helping create 250 acres of fire defensible space in San Diego County. In the process, many young people developed an interest in pursuing a career in fire fighting, an added benefit for the San Diego Workforce Partnership, who came to Urban Corps last October with a budget of $1.1 million in ARRA and Workforce Investment Act dollars for youth employment through fire prevention and mitigation services.

It was Urban Corps that called upon its community partners and quickly leveraged the project to over $1.7 million, substantially increasing the FFR program’s scope, impact and ability to serve youth and community. FFR proved exceptional in many ways.

From the beginning, the program represented a departure from Urban Corps’ typical Corpsmember enrollment procedure and numbers. Prior to FFR, enrollment was at approximately 140 youth. FFR allowed the organization to provide a three-tiered program to 318 young adults ages 18-25 for 12 weeks. Urban Corps rapidly mobilized and coordinated a massive recruitment effort. To qualify for the program, applicants had to meet low-income guidelines and have at least one barrier to employment such as a disability, limited English proficiency, a court record, or history in the foster care system. More than 100 were hired by the end of March.

The participants were scheduled to receive an intensive training followed by work in the field for four days per week and attendance at Urban Corps’ onsite charter high school the remaining one day per week to receive academic instruction, class credit, and a rigorous work readiness education through the Corps-to-Career Department. As a result, the FFR program created unprecedentedly large high school enrollment at Urban Corps Charter School, expanding the number of youth served by 100%.

Another exciting aspect of the FFR program was the additional impact brought in by Urban Corps’ leveraged partnerships. In an unprecedented move, the organization was able to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and the Viejas Fire Department, a fantastic opportunity for Corpsmembers to receive training and gain on-the-job experience alongside professionals. Additional sponsors were Sweetwater Authority and the City of Chula Vista, both in need of fire mitigation services. Most notably, Viejas Fire Dept. brought an in-kind match of certified training for the participants, greatly enhancing the overall value of the program for Corpsmembers.

Before being sent out in the field, participants attended an intensive orientation training on fire fuel reduction methods and leadership, including safe hand tool and chain saw usage. The professional certification training included 4 courses attended by FFR participants and staff and led by Viejas personnel. Course material covered the primary factors affecting the start and spread of wildfires, recognition of potentially hazardous situations, entry level firefighter skills, and an introduction to the function, maintenance and use of chain saws and their wildland fire application. The training resulted in 65% of the FFR participants earning Chainsaw Operation Certification and LS-180 leadership training, leaving them qualified to join a fire hand crew.

In the field, Corpsmembers gained valuable job skills while removing vegetation and assisting with controlled burns. The youth experienced first-hand what fire fighters do in the off-season to prevent wildfires. They learned about firebreaks, shelters, and native plants. At Bell Middle School in San Diego, FFR crews helped create a safe passage to school for students by clearing a well traversed canyon path. The project was highly publicized and brought considerable attention to the FFR program and its partners. In total, crews produced more than 10.8 million square feet of defensible space, leaving San Diego County a much safer place to live for its 3 million residents.

An unexpected benefit of the FFR program has been a significant increase in the Urban Corps’ capacity to serve its target population, specifically through its ability to obtain similar service projects. The success of this program has paved the way for potential funding for future fire fuel reduction partnerships. So many benefitted through FFR, most of all the young people, that the Corps expects this program to be duplicated year after year. Plus, with enrollment more than doubling, Urban Corps experienced a challenge and a reward that taught them that they were capable of serving more young people and that they can and must create additional opportunities for youth. As such, they shifted their charter school focus this past summer and adopted a new calendar with more learning days. Starting this fall, a week-on/week/off education schedule is enabling the Corps to train and educate 30% more youth.

2007 Corpsmember of the Year: Alana Svensen

***Update! Click here to find out what Alana has been up to since accepting her award.***

As a Corpsmember with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), Alana helped coordinate the first rotation of 600 NCCC members to the Gulf Coast in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In other NCCC rotations in the Northeast Region, Alana framed homes with Habitat for Humanity, helped with education programs in Maryland and the Bronx and became a Certified Wild Land Firefighter in upstate New York.

Unsure what she wanted to to do when she graduate college in 2003, Alana joined the Corps to "give back to society." During her time deployed at the Red Cross staging area in the Gulf Coast, teaching children in the education programs, and building trails and homes, Alana feels she learned a lot about other people but even more about herself and what she can do. She plans to use her newly discovered logistical and building skills, as well as the insights she has gained, to continue to serve through a nonprofit or government agency. 

2007 Corpsmember of the Year: Yvette Chischillie

As a Corpsmember with the Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC) in Durango, CO, Yvette was part of a Special Diabetes Project of the Navajo Nation, led a crew in constructing a brand new trail in the Chuska Mountains of New Mexico and was a leader of the Wild Fire Prevention Program.

Yvette was the first SCC Corpsmember from the Navajo Nation and her positive experience inspired so many to apply in the following years that there are now more applications from the Navajo Nation than there are available member spots.

Yvette graduated from vocational school in welding in bricklaying and plans to use her AmeriCorps education award to go into a apprenticeship program in bricklaying.

2007 Corpsmember of the Year: Rosalio "Lio" Cardenas


(Written in 2007 - update at the bottom)

Rosalio took an unusual path to becoming a Corpsmember.  After spending two and a half semesters working towards a civil engineering degree at San Diego State University, and working much of that time in the university library and as a math and science tutor, Rosalio decided his college experience was lacking.  In the CCC, Rosalio saw his opportunity to work outdoors, provide a valuable service to his state, meet new people from various backgrounds, and earn scholarship money to assist him in completing his degree in the future. 

As a CCC corpsmember, Rosalio initially engaged in fire hazard reduction work, removing burned and dead trees from communities hard hit by the San Diego wildfires of 2000.  In early spring with heavy rains threatening flooding and mudslides, Rosalio and his crewmembers again served their communities by working tirelessly to divert debris, flood waters, and mud from residential neighborhoods.  Because of his high standards for performance and eagerness to assist others, Rosalio quickly established himself as a leader among his peers.  By April, Rosalio was ready for the next challenge that the CCC had to offer: the Backcountry Trails Program.

Choosing to leave the comforts of home life in southern California, Rosalio joined a crew of 15 Corpsmembers who committed themselves to spending 22 weeks living and working in the wilderness of Klamath National Forest.  The trials faced by backcountry Corpsmembers are daunting, but once again Rosalio was unflinching in his determination to meet them.  Rosalio stood out not only for the unprecedented results he achieved on the grade, but also for the amount of time he committed to performing communal chores and providing mentoring and guidance to his fellow crewmembers. He went beyond expectations by creating an extensive evening curriculum program aimed at developing a greater sense of community, environmental awareness, and communication skills.   His compassion, integrity, and consideration for others were widely respected among his peers and earned him the moniker, “Papa Leo.”  Peter Lewis, the CCC’s Backcountry Trails Supervisor, said of Rosalio “in the 28 years we have been sending Corpsmembers to the backcountry, I can think of no finer person to represent the program or the youth of America.”

Leo now plans to use the AmeriCorps education award he earned with the CCC to finish his degree in Civil Engineering and has applied to the California Highway Patrol so he can continue to make an impact on his peers and community. 

*** Sadly, Rosalio was killed in a motorcycle accident on the morning of Wednesday, December 12, 2012. 

The Corps Network sends condolences to Rosalio’s wife, family, and friends. To honor Rosalio, we have posted the speech he gave at our National Conference in February 2007 upon accepting his Corpsmember of the Year award. 

2011 Corpsmember of the Year: Christopher Thomas

***Update! Click here to read about what Chris has been up to since he accepted his award.***


(Written in 2011)

Despite challenging circumstances, Christopher Thomas overcame adversity to become a leader in the California Conservation Corps (CCC). He and his 3 siblings were raised alone by their mom, who worked 3 jobs and also survived cervical cancer.

In 2005, Chris enlisted in the Marines after working as a youth pastor. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was wounded twice over his four years of service. He received shrapnel in the chest and was stabbed once, leading to a medical discharge. Soon thereafter, he joined the CCC.

Chris became a Crew Leader, admired for his dedication, unassuming nature, and his pursuit of service to others. He and his crew worked on a variety of projects, such as helping to maintain newly planted trees and decrease fire potential by reducing fuels. It was not so easy at first though.

Chris says that “coming from the military, we were all taught to think and act one way. So I just didn’t run into different personalities until I came to the Corps. It was really a culture shock and the fact that I was forced to work with these people really was a smack to the face. But it taught me patience and greatly improved my people skills. No matter where I go in life my time in the Corps will only benefit me. And I no longer feel ‘forced’ but blessed to work with different types of people.”

Chris’s supervisors noticed his nature to go above and beyond. While only required by the CCC to complete 48 hours of volunteer community service, Chris logged nearly 250 hours. For this reason, they nominated him for the Silver Presidential Service Award, which he ultimately received from the Corporation for National Service in September of 2010.

It’s this kind of ethic that Chris’s supervisors believe will ultimately make it easy for him to find a job with one of the agencies or departments he has worked with. He has already interviewed for a position with the Department of Water Resources, but says that “no matter where I end up, I just want to help people, whether that’s my career or not.”