Program helps restore habitat while restoring human lives

VIC LEIPZIG AND LOU MURRAY

A few weeks ago, I took 20 Orange County Conservation Corps members

to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art to see the fabulous Egyptian

mummy exhibit.

This group of mostly Hispanic inner city kids works on

conservation projects while earning their high school diplomas. The

trip to the Bowers, generously funded by a grant from the museum, was

part of their education.

Corps members have lives vastly different from mine, and see life

very differently. For example, one of the displays in the Egyptian

exhibit is a model of a funeral barge ferrying a mummy up the Nile.

These model boats were placed in the tomb with the deceased. The

mummy's family was depicted on the barge with him.

When I saw a woman and a small boy on the barge, I assumed that

the woman was the wife of the deceased, and the small boy was his son

or grandson. The corps member standing next to me saw the small

figure as the mummy's little brother because, in his experience,

people his age die -- generally in gang violence.

It's a sad comment on life that these young people expect to die

violently, or expect their friends to die. I hope to show them a life

with more hope and better prospects.

It was the second time this summer that I've taken a group of

corps members to the Bowers, and again I was amazed at how strongly

the corps members responded to the art. They appreciated the fine

craftsmanship on the antique Spanish weapons and loved the Mayan art

gallery.

But they reacted most positively to the plein-air art gallery. The

oil paintings fascinated them.

The corps members didn't have to tell me how much they enjoyed

their trip to the Bowers. They bubbled with excitement as we left.

Some said they had no idea places like that existed, and they wanted

to see more. Others said it was a much better experience seeing it as

an adult than as a third-grader.

Best of all was a comment from one of the teachers at the corps.

He said that no educational approach the teachers had tried had

worked on one particular corps member. But this young man was so

excited by his trip to the Bowers he couldn't stop talking about it.

It was a remarkable experience to see the Bowers Museum through

the eyes of my corps members. Some of them lagged behind the tour in

groups of twos and threes over certain exhibits, discussing them in

very animated fashion, discussing how the paintings were made or how

a certain object might have been used, calling me over to get

involved.

Their teachers said the classroom was chaos upon their return, as

they all talked at once about the experience. Art reaches these kids

like books can't and brings history alive for them.

Don't ask me why, but I really relate to the "teenage Hispanic

gang member on probation" demographic. Incredibly, several of the

kids have commented that I'm one of them. As one corps member said

last week, "She knows what time it is."

Apparently, that's the latest street talk for "she's cool." I took

it as a compliment.

Vic is greatly amused by my work. He's also a bit concerned. Not

for my safety, although this gaggle of big, tattooed guys with shaved

heads can be intimidating if you don't know them.

He's worried they'll be a bad influence on me, and I'll come home

with multiple body piercing and wearing chinos hanging below my butt.

I took a group of corps members to go bird watching at Bolsa Chica

last week. The kids all talked at once, pointing at this bird and

that, asking why the snowy egret was shaking its feet in the water,

asking if I could please find another long-billed curlew for them to

look at, and looking at the round stingrays swimming right below us.

Most of these kids have never been out of the inner city, and

coming to Huntington Beach to work on restoration projects at Shipley

Nature Center and Bolsa Chica is an eye-opener for them. If they

learn to love and appreciate nature, my hope is that they'll want to

preserve and restore it.

Corps members come from different backgrounds. They haven't all

been in trouble with the law.

Some are very bright, come from privileged backgrounds and were

just bored with school. Some are disruptive and didn't fit into the

traditional school system. Some had to drop out of school to support

their parents, siblings or their own children. Some have language

barriers to learning.

What they have in common is a desire to work, while earning their

high school diplomas. For me, it is one of the biggest challenges of

my life to reach all of these kids with their diverse backgrounds and

make sure that they get an education that is meaningful to them.

Over the three years that I've been working with corps members,

we've accomplished a lot of good restoration work.

Most of my kids have graduated with their diplomas and gotten

jobs. Some have gone on to college. A few have gone back to drugs or

jail. One was murdered.

But overall, it's been the most satisfying thing I've ever done

with my life -- to get the habitat restored while restoring human

lives.

* VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and

environmentalists. They can be reached at o7vicleipzig@aol.com.

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