President Franklin Roosevelt was not the first to see the many benefits of giving youths the opportunity to work in the great outdoors, but he was the first to make it a national government priority.
In the midst of the Great Depression, with countless thousands of American youth out of school and out of work, Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which paid young people about $30 a month to work in the woods. From 1933 to 1942, some 6 million “CCC boys” wielded shovels, axes and saws on conservation and construction efforts that helped build the nation’s parks, leaving projects that are enjoyed to this day.
Today, however, budget shortages and political shifts have partly eroded the original purposes of conservation corps agencies and even washed some of them away. Last year, two of the oldest and most admired conservation corps closed: the state-run Ohio and Wisconsin corps, which steered youngsters to careers in such areas as forestry and landscaping.
“Lack of money has caused organizations to move away from environment as a priority,” laments Sally Prouty, president of the 106-member National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (NASCC).
More AmeriCorps money is going to homeland security and public safety programs, funding efforts such as the partnership between the Youth Conservation Corps in Waukegan, Ill., and the Red Cross of Greater Chicago. More money is also going to programs that aim to boost educational achievement – such as the Los Angeles Conservation Corps runs the Good Beginnings Early Childhood Education Program, which focuses on literacy.
Prouty is also concerned about federal government shifts away from the meat-and-potatoes 1930s approach to engaging poor and low-income youth by providing stipends while they learn. College-track programs that favor college students (under the Bill Clinton era) and volunteerism (under the George W. Bush era), combined with an emphasis on education and literacy (promoted by both administrations), have prompted some conservation agencies to pull back from the environmental efforts for which they have long been known and to pursue funds attached to projects that fit political priorities.
So while Roosevelt’s CCC existed almost solely to help the poor and disadvantaged, fewer and fewer conservation corps participants come from that background today. “I am always advocating for a higher percentage of programs that deal with young people in disadvantaged situations, because 56 percent of our corps members have no high school diploma and live in socially disadvantaged situations,” Prouty says.
Many conservation corps depend heavily on AmeriCorps funding, which has been cut back in recent years because of congressional anger over sloppy accounting practices. (AmeriCorps grants totaled $441 million in fiscal 2004, and are set at $430 million for 2005.)
But money isn’t the only worry. When David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (AmeriCorps’ parent agency), appeared at the NASCC’s national conference in Washington in February, he was peppered with questions by members concerned that their emphasis on environmental work might hurt them in applying for new AmeriCorps grants. That’s because those awarding the grants now place a premium on programs that involve homeland security and emergency preparedness.
Ann Cochrane, executive director of the San Francisco Conservation Corps, says that last year her agency “lost a million” dollars in AmeriCorps funding, causing her to cut the staff by 30 percent, even though she reports a “waiting list of young people trying to get into our programs.”
Bob McCammon, executive director of the Youth Conservation Corps in Waukegan, Ill. says operating a successful corps program is a “daily struggle.” Some, however, have learned to thrive. One is the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, which never met a contract it didn’t like. The corps has built a budget of $17 million and growing by aggressively pursuing grants and municipal contracts, the latter for such services as planting trees and rebuilding local parks. In Waukegan, McCammon’s much smaller corps – with a budget of about $900,000 – survives on aggressive networking and partnerships with organizations such as YouthBuild.
Another corps, the Spring Mountain Youth Camp in Nevada, has solid funding from its county juvenile justice agency, because it takes in only adjudicated youth.
Prouty would like to see more agencies include juvenile offenders, as well as foster children. She hopes for a “rigorous evaluation” of corps programs by those in the field that would help bring about such a shift. Following are several examples of how conservation programs are carried out today.
Youth Grant Making AmeriCorps Cape Cod
P. O. Box 427 Barnstable, MA 02630 (508) 375-6869 www.rdoac.org
With shellfish toxicity monitoring and herring run maintenance as ongoing projects, and Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay serving as backdrops, AmeriCorps Cape Cod (ACC) members can often be spotted with their rain slickers blowin’ in the wind.
Maintaining shorelines and trails, building small bridges, planting beach grass and constructing a 900-foot boardwalk are just some of the ways ACC introduces youngsters to open-space endeavors and inserts itself into the consciousness of local residents and fastidious tourists.
“This is about empowering youth to think they have something positive to contribute to society,” says Gretchen Glaub, 29, ACC’s program coordinator. Glaub and ACC Regional Supervisor Michelle Spevak, 27, are both former AmeriCorps workers who point to their past experiences as the impetus for their current efforts, as Wood describes it, to “create partnerships with teenagers and high school groups” that nurture decision-making about community environmental work.
The five-year-old program, administered and primarily funded by the Barnstable County Resource Development Office, focuses on the environmental needs of the 15 towns within the county. It carries out projects itself and awards grants to other groups to carry out projects.
The corps operates with a $500,000 annual budget, five full-time paid staffers and 20 AmeriCorps members.
Some of the grants come from youth via the Green Grant Youth Council, which grooms up to 20 “teen philanthropists,” ages 12 to 17, to learn about grant making, leadership, team building, mentoring and public speaking.
The youths are responsible for developing grant selection criteria, writing requests for proposals, reviewing submissions and deciding which environmental projects will receive mini-grants. The youth council became an environmental grant-making arm of the county in 1999, with built-in mentoring and facilitator assistance provided by ACC staff.
The council has awarded grants ranging from $150 to $1,000 to high schools, charter schools, citizens’ groups and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History for projects on solar energy, water erosion, tree planting and coyote ecology. The total comes to about $26,000 over three years, says Jessica Rimington, who served on the council until her recent graduation from high school made her ineligible.
In some ways, however, Rimington is the public face of the corps. In March, she was selected as one of six national finalists for a BRICK award from the New York-based Do Something organization, and in April was cited as the Governor’s Points of Light award winner during a ceremony at the Statehouse in Boston.
Once youth get beyond the age for the council, they can join in an array of corps activities, where members from 21 to 28 focus on youth every day through such efforts as developing environment-based curricula in schools, running field trips and bringing youth on as volunteers. While a lot of corps programs are nervous about money, Glaub says the future of ACC is “looking fine.”
Juvenile Justice Spring Mountain Youth Camp
HCR 38, Box 252 Las Vegas, NV 89124 (702) 455-5555 www.co.clark.nv.us
At an elevation of 8,470 feet in a remote Nevada juvenile correctional facility, some 200 adjudicated young men learn skills in trail maintenance, forestry, erosion control and landscaping each year. Spring Mountain Youth Camp (SMYC) is located at Angels Peak in the Mt. Charleston Recreation/ Toiyabe National Forest area. With a full-time staff of 56 and a $6.2 million budget, the camp houses 12- to 18-year-old boys who are serving time at SMYC on such charges as burglary, larceny, drug use and parole violations. It is run by the Clark County, Nev., Department of Corrections’ Family and Youth Services Division.
Education and skills training top the list of activities. The older boys (16 and up) learn to operate power tools for use in building trails, controlling erosion, trimming trees, clearing bushes and hauling debris. Younger youth learn to make signs to be posted on trails and roads about activities, elevations and forest lore. All the youth get involved in a conservation activity.
“This is a good place to work if you’re a youth worker,” said Dan Prince,who served as SMYC manager until this summer. “It’s remote and in a strong union environment, so the pay is good.” He said the county’s Department of Juvenile Justice Services picks up 95 percent of the funding, and a state subsidy makes up the rest.
Prince, who put in 33 years with the U.S. Forest Service, said county case management tracking shows that 75 percent of those assigned to the camp do not “re-offend” within a year of “supervised” release when counseling and employment help are provided.
Prince labels the camp as “something above” a community-based program. Among its features: • Camp residents can earn up to $6 an hour in federal Workforce Investment Act money while working for the U.S. Forest Service, which contracts with the camp for fire crew support, campsite maintenance, wood cutting, snow removal and sign construction. The youths must use their income to pay any fines or victim’s compensation dictated by their sentences before they can keep the money themselves.
•The Clark County School District operates a full-time school program at Spring Mountain during the school year, emphasizing remedial education and GED courses.
• Community college athletic scholarships are awarded in track and field and basketball to interest the teens in higher education. Of one thing, Prince is certain: The camp tests and builds character. “This is hard work,” he said. “The kids see a side of themselves that is lost in so many of their other endeavors. Here, they have a chance to win in something. They have a shelter; they can eat regularly and engage in physical fitness.” Prince believes the value of fresh air and a new environment cannot be overstated. “We separate them from their negative peer group or a dysfunctional family,” he said. “We take some noise out of their life.”
Urban Conservation Los Angeles Conservation Corps
605 W. Olympic Blvd. Suite 450 Los Angeles, CA 90015 (213) 362-9000, ext. 203 www.lacorps.org
The Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC) is one of the largest independent nonprofit agencies in the country: It has a $19 million annual budget, a cadre of nearly 200 paid young adult corps members and environmental programs involving thousands of junior high and high school youth who earn the minimum wage. Based in South Central and East Los Angeles, it was founded in 1986 by Mickey Kantor, who later served as secretary of commerce under President Clinton.
Its three strategically placed centers (one is at Watts Youth Opportunities High School) offer year-round, after-school and summer programs that primarily involve Latino and African-American teens.
The Clean & Green program, for instance, trains and pays youths $6.75 an hour (the California minimum wage) to work on neighborhood beautification projects such as clearing vacant lots and planting trees. Clean & Green operates citywide for 15 hours a week in eight-week cycles, year-round. It is funded by the city of Los Angeles, to the tune of $4.5 million. School dropouts are eligible to participate. About 2,200 young people go through the program each year, says Executive Director Bruce Saito.
Other activities include the Sea Laboratory, which involves 5- to 13-year-olds in marine life conservation techniques and marine science education; after-school environmental clubs at middle schools through the Building up Los Angeles program; and an EcoAcademy for 14- to 18-year-olds that focuses on environmental concerns and careers.
“Our funding is truly diversified,” Saito says. One-third comes from the federal government, through AmeriCorps; one-third from the state, through such agencies as the Department of Conservation; and one-third from the city and county, through education and environment protection grants. Local and national private donors such as the Charles Stewart Mott and the California Community foundations contribute about 6 percent of the agency’s operating revenue.
Deputy Director Phil Matero attributes the financial succcess to hustle.
“We are very entrepreneurial,” Matero says. “We go after grants saying, ‘Hey, we can plant these trees cheaper than the city.’ ” He says service corps agencies “have to find a market niche that shows services provided by young people have greater value” than some services provided by adults. “Value” doesn’t mean just a lower price, he says; it includes the youth development benefits of introducing youngsters to new job opportunities and options. “But if you’re not good at what you do,” he cautions, “you will not be hired again.”
The LACC entrepreneurial power showed in February when Los Angeles County gave the agency the green light for a $2.7 million proposal to build and maintain parks in poor areas, using money from the Tobacco Tax Fund ballot initiative of 1998. Some $40 million in state tobacco taxes are set aside for child development programs for low-income children in the county.
“We got contracts from five municipalities within the county to build 19 parks in the lowest income and highest population density areas – places that are ‘park poor,’ ” Matero says. He says two crews of 18- to 24-year-olds lay rubber surfacing with trowels, do the landscaping and put together playground equipment.
He is equally proud of a project now under way to rebuild burnt-out forests in the San Bernardino Mountains. For that, LACC snagged a $500,000 contract from a joint venture of the U.S. Forest Service and AmeriCorps.
The LACC approach is summed up by Saito: “We’ll apply for everything and anything.”
Networking and Partnerships Youth Conservation Corps
Room 32 1020 Glen Rock Ave. Waukegan, IL 60085 (847) 623-0900 www.youthconservation.org
“We’re a small program – small potatoes,” say Bob McCammon as he schmoozes at a National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (NASCC) conference in Washington. “But here I’m a giant, networking alone.”
McCammon’s trip in February paid off: His Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) will use a new $70,200 NASCC-AmeriCorps National Direct Grant to launch two projects that will serve 20 youth seeking their GEDs. The grant was up in the air until he made those face-to-face contacts in Washington. The two-part program includes an environmental effort to plant native flora and a partnership with the Red Cross of Greater Chicago in which participants will learn the newest Department of Homeland Security crowd safety techniques for possible terrorist attacks.
With a budget of about $900,000 and a staff of six, the YCC provides paid, part-time corps memberships to about 66 youth a year through a variety of programs.
During the eight-week summer program, about 40 youth ages 16 to 18 cut trails, build boardwalks over wetlands and restore stream banks. Half of that program’s $300,000 cost is covered by local businesses, whom McCammon praises for contributing “cash and services, equipment and people” every year. He singles out Salton Inc., manufacturers of the George Foreman Grill, as $100,000 contributors to this year’s program.
McCammon is particularly proud of 21 high school dropouts, ages 16 to 24, who graduated in July from a YCC YouthBuild project. The young people, who were paid an average of $200 a week, built three houses and assisted in the construction of three others in low-income areas of the city. Fifteen of the youth returned to school, another graduated and five have attained GED certificates. Two of the participants are seeking apprentice positions through a
YCC agreement with the Chicago local of the Northeastern Illinois District of the Council of Carpenters.
The 57-year-old McCammon, a youth worker in the service corps area for 13 years, points to the “old grads” as a sign of YCC’s success: “They’ve gone on to college and majored in natural science courses. Others are now working at Yellowstone and Yosemite.”
He says Waukegan “is the most depressed area” in otherwise rich Lake County, with its industrial parks and the corporate presence of Abbott Laboratories, Walgreen Drug Stores and Marriott Resorts.
“It takes constant fund raising to keep alive,” he says. “I’m not bashful about asking for money.”