Many years ago I attended a gathering in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, along with several hundred young people between the ages of 18 and 23. The group was primarily male and included members of many ethnic groups. There were no gangs, no fights broke out and no one was fired upon.
Indeed, the crowd was respectful, quiet and well mannered. The young people were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the California Conservation Corps. Created in 1976, the CCC is the oldest and largest conservation corps program now in operation in the world. For the past 41 years, the CCC has provided employment and development to thousands of young Californians and enhancement and protection of the state’s natural resources.
Our son became a member of the California Conservation Corps in 1996, when he was 20-years-old. At that point in his life, my husband and I recognized talents in our son that we knew would not be nurtured at a community college or university. Not every round peg fits into the square hole called college.
Our round peg decided to join the corps after spending half a year working at a crummy job and the other half in technical school. He was the one who decided to join the CCC. After reading their literature, we thought it was worth a try.
We dropped him off at the bus station on a cold January morning at 6:00 am and watched him walk away in the cold half-light of day, feeling fear and hope in equal measure.
Six months later, on a warm summer afternoon, we were bursting with pride as we joined our son at the CCC’s twentieth anniversary celebration. We walked with him from booth to booth to learn more about the opportunities available through this worthwhile government program. For example, our son spent two months in Australia as part of an international exchange.
Because of the high standards the corps maintain, there is a fifty-percent dropout rate. Their five main rules are: no alcohol, no drugs, no violence, no refusal to work and no destruction of property. Corps members shape up or ship out. Those who make the cut learn quickly to listen to the boss, work hard and get the job done. Corps members who complete one year are eligible for scholarship money to continue their education.
Corps members receive minimum wage, less costs for room and meals. Our son was housed at Sequoia Station in Porterville. He shared a room with three other young men. Women are housed in separate quarters but do the same work as the men.
The CCC has 13 residential centers throughout California. Corps members work all over the state, from the back county wilderness to major metropolitan areas. The work includes: tree planting, stream clearance, trail construction, energy conservation and historic renovation projects.
Our son applied to become a part of a firefighting crew and received training before being dispatched to fight fires. His crew provided backup to US Forest Service firefighting teams. He was not required to take physical education beyond his sophomore year of high school but routinely ran two to three miles a day to keep in shape to remain on the fire crew.
The California Conservation Corps was founded in 1976, the year my son was born. It was modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s. When my son was small I often took him hiking in state parks and tried to instill in him a love and respect for nature. We enjoyed areas that were improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
We are proud of our son for entering the CCC, for sticking it out, and then earning a degree in English from the University of San Diego. He is now 41-years-old, married, and the father of two children. He is also a nursing student in an accelerated program at NYU.
He told me made the mid-career change because he wanted to have meaningful work. I think that his stint in the CCC, all those years ago, may have helped shape his need to contribute, not to just collect a paycheck.
Kathleen Vallee Stein