Natural Perspectives: Conservation Corps graduates 112 in 2012

Vic and I last week attended graduation ceremonies for the Orange County Conservation Corps. Our allergies must have been acting up, because tears were streaming down both of our faces as we listened to the stories about the many challenges and obstacles that these young men and women overcame on the path to their high school diplomas.

I have worked at the Orange County Conservation Corps since 2005, teaching the new hires about local conservation issues. I teared up when I saw 112 of my Corps members dressed in caps and gowns.

The Corps has never graduated that many. To put this in perspective, last year we graduated 55, and the year before that, 45. When I first started working at the Corps, graduating classes were typically 10 to 12. What a change. The Corps now enrolls the students in classes before hiring them for work, and we seem to now get more motivated young people.

Corps members come to us, needing to earn a living while they work on conservation projects throughout Orange County. They range in age from 18 to 24 years old, and most of them are Hispanic. Many have had issues with gang membership, drug and/or alcohol abuse, or are on probation. They come to us to turn their lives around.

After hard work for which they are paid, they attend the Corps' charter school Monday through Thursday. Most of them take about a year to complete the necessary credits and pass the state-mandated English and math high school exit exams.

They then transition to our Corps to Career program, where they continue to work during the day, then work on resumes, practice job interviews, prepare college applications, and look for work.

At last week's graduation ceremony, one young man, Malik Nash-Bey, was singled out for praise. He scored in the 95th percentile on the math exit exam, the second highest score earned in OCCC history.

Among the graduates were a number who have been working at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve under the supervision of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Those corps members are Rogelio Flores, Andrew Arreola, Jesse Angeles Sands, Karen Munoz, Monique Vasquez and Cindy Duenas. Jesse was one of four speakers at the graduation ceremony, and Vic and I spoke with him at length about his work at Bolsa Chica.

Jesse was on one of my crews that participated in a cleanup of the Bolsa Chica wetlands by canoe. While on the crew that is currently stationed at Bolsa Chica, he tackled invasive, non-native plants. Along with other crew members, they cleared the entire nesting area that is used by endangered California least terns and threatened snowy plovers.

Jesse and the other crew members also took care of the hundreds of plants being grown at the nursery at the Bolsa Chica Conservancy. These plants will be transplanted in the fall, just in time to benefit from the winter rains.

Another task for the crew is a weekly survey of the activities that visitors to the ecological reserve are engaging in. The crew walks the entire trail system, recording what people are doing.

Their checklist includes walking, running, and observing wildlife, plus any illegal activity that they might observe, such as walking a dog on or off leash, bicycling or canoeing. The data will be used by the Department of Fish and Game to determine what usage is occurring, and what enforcement issues might exist at the wetlands. Similar surveys are underway at Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve.

After he leaves the Corps, Jesse will attend college to prepare for a job as a computer graphics specialist. He has earned scholarship funds that will help defray the expenses of his additional education. This year, 49 of our graduates earned a total of $143,000 in scholarships.

Jesse has moved to another crew to gain additional experience, but the others are still on the crew at Bolsa Chica. At least for now.

The corps rotates crew members to various crews to give them a wider range of experiences. For example, some intern at Goodwill Industries to learn retail sales and warehousing skills. Others intern at Habitat for Humanity to learn construction skills, and still others work on the recycling crews.

At the graduation ceremony, the Corps' executive director, Katharyn Bandoni, congratulated the graduates for overcoming the various obstacles in their lives to succeed.

"You made the choice to walk into the OCCC and make a change in your life," she said. "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams."

Keynote speaker Rick Stevens of the Boeing Co. said, "All things come to he who waits, as long as he works like hell while he waits."

The Corps members have certainly done that. Work at the Corps is difficult and demanding, and these young people are to be praised for persevering.

In addition to Jesse Sands, three other Corps members spoke. Valedictorian Naomi Lopez, Crystal Asoau and Monique Vasquez each described some of the challenges that they faced, such as death of a parent, single parenthood at an early age, and the scourge of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

They have all overcome tremendous barriers to get to where they are today. Congratulations, Class of 2012!

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. You can reach them at

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