Not sure if you’ve heard the news yet, but we had local heroes recognized in Washington, D.C. last week. During the Corps Network's 2012 National Conference held from February 12th through the 15th in the chilly capital, our local Corps walked away with two coveted awards. Two.

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The Urban Corps of San Diego County was selected to receive both the 2012 Project of the Year and Legacy Achievement Awards from among the 158 service and conservation Corps currently operating in 46 states, as well as in D.C., who collectively enroll more than 33,000 young men and women into service every year.

Formed on the principles of FDR's depression-era, public work-relief Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that employed more than six million men between 1933 and1942 to develop the national park, trail and highway system in exchange for food, shelter, education, and a whopping $30-a-month stipend, today’s Corps Network mobilizes diversified Corpsmembers in communities across the nation. Programs that consist of the Civic Justice Corps, Public Lands Corps, Clean Energy Service Corps, and Corps Respond provide Corpsmembers the needed work readiness training, as well as educational advancement and civic engagement opportunities, by which to become more employable citizens.

Although the CCC was officially disbanded in 1942, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) placed its first college student volunteers in national parks and forests in 1957. A decade later, the federally funded Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) enrolled approximately 32,000 young people in summer who performed a variety of conservation projects, including tree planting, river cleanup and erosion control. The success of the YCC spawned the formation of the Young Adult Conservation Corps with an annual appropriation of $260 million, which provided young people with year-round conservation-related employment and education opportunities. Eliminated in 1981 due to dramatic federal budget reductions, these programs had effectively set the stage. Governor Jerry Brown didn’t hesitate, launching the California Conservation Corps in 1976, the first of many state Corps that would be formed at the local level over the next thirty years.

Thanks to the foresight of Justice Anthony Kline, the then Legal Affairs Secretary to Governor Jerry Brown whose previous experience in the juvenile justice court system had led him to recognize the need for more programs which would to turn young misguided lives around, the first urban youth conservation corps was formed in 1983, again in trendsetting California. There would be another 11 to form across the State in subsequent years due to the passage of the California Bottle Act in 1985, which earmarked funding for local Corps recycling projects. With the loss of federal funding, these early Corps formed as entrepreneurial organizations skilled at leveraging operational resources. In 2010, the Corps Network budgets collectively totaled $549 million, 26% of which was derived from fee-for-service contracts.

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Enter stage right, former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, who had been urged by Kline to work with local leaders to start a Corps here in San Diego. Resident Mrs. Marion Wilbur, whose husband Bud had been an original member of FDR's legendary Tree Army, simultaneous approached then Mayor Maureen O’Connor about the need for a local corps. The synergy created by Justine Kline, Lynn Schenk, Marion Wilbur, the City Council, and others San Diego residents managed to spur the development of a steering committee that raised over $125,000 in seed money to form the Urban Corps of San Diego in 1989 (later to become the Urban Corps of San Diego County). Placed at the helm was a man named Sam Duran. Within three months, the first twenty Corpsmembers were hired. The rest, as ‘they’ say, is history and the Urban Corps has since served more than 10,000 San Diegans.

Now well entrenched within San Diego’s communities, Urban Corps has established countywide conservation programs that include fee-for-service contracts with Qualcomm Stadium, PETCO Park, Cox Arena and Cricket Wireless Amphitheater, to name just a few. Over the years, the Urban Corps has earned mucho recognition for its many award winning programs which provide paid green job training opportunities in the fields of recycling, conservation and community service to unemployed disadvantaged inner city high school dropouts.

Most recently this past December, it was recognized for its urban beautification and neighborhood redevelopment contributions with the unveiling of the Jefferson Street Gateway Mural. In 2009, Urban Corps received the Best Urban Forestry Program of the Year Award from the California Urban Forests Council and the Outstanding Recycling Program Award from the California Resource and Recovery Association. It received the 2006 and 2007 Best Strategic Partnership Award from the National Association of Conservation Corps (NASCC) for its partnership with the Leadership and Education Department of the University of San Diego for the Urban Corps Assessment and Counseling Clinic (UC-ACC) which brings 20 master degree students to work with Urban Corps students. The list goes on.

The Corps Network’s Member Relations Manager, Carol Huls, said that the award winning Projects of the Year “represent the some of the best work Corps complete.” They are intended to be innovative and replicable, enhance Corpsmember experience and substantially impact communities she added. The Urban Corps received the 2012 Projects of the Year Award for its Fire Fuel Reduction (FFR) Program because, Huls stated, “it had a dramatic increase on the size of Urban Corps and the impact made to the San Diego community.”

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The FFR Program represented a departure from Urban Corps’ typical enrollment procedure and numbers. Prior to FFR, enrollment was at approximately 140 youth. FFR allowed Urban Corps to rapidly mobilize and coordinated a massive recruitment effort to hire 318 young adults ages 18-25 into the three-tiered 12 week program. Partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and the Viejas Fire Department, Urban Corps doubled its enrollment to provide twice the Corpsmembers paid on-the-job experience from professional firefighters. Additional sponsors of the award winning program who were in need of fire mitigation services included the Sweetwater Authority and the City of Chula Vista. In total, the FFR crews funded in part by the Workforce Reinvestment and American Recovery and Reinvestment Acts produced more than 10.8 million square feet of defensible space, leaving the fire stricken County safer for its 3 million residents.

The program could not have succeeded had it not been for the in-kind match of certified training contributed by the Viejas Fire Department which greatly enhanced the overall value of the program for Corpsmembers. Viejas personnel provided the four course certification training to FFR participants and Urban Corps staff covering 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. Most importantly, 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.

Qualifying applicants met low-income eligibility criteria and had at least one barrier to employment such as a disability, limited English proficiency, a court record, or history in the foster care system. Jordan Mack, the Corpsmember highlighted in an earlier posting entitled Rising From The Trenches with San Diego's Urban Corps (Dec. 29, 2011), was one of the 318 hired through the FFR program. Makes sense given his interest in becoming a smoke jumper. He has since graduated from the Corps and is utilizing the Corps-to-Career computer lab and job placement services to secure a job. As with all Corpsmembers, he applied to a post secondary education institution; unlike most, he was accepted. However, without an income, housing and reliable transportation, the likelihood of him completing a degree program is slim.

San Diego’s Urban Corps also received the Corps Network’s 2012 Legacy Achievement Award, a peer-to-peer award given in recognition of those having served in senior leadership positions in one or more corps within the Corps Network and who over the course of their careers have made a significant contribution to the movement (e.g. founded a corps, brought a corps to scale, made a significant national contribution through developing a national project, served a key role as a national board member, etc.). The Urban Corps’ headman was this year’s winner of that prestigious award.

“At Urban Corps and beyond, Sam has been a proven visionary and strategic leader who translates strategies into maximum results for youth, community, and environment,” said David Muraki, the California Conservation Corps’ (CCC) Executive Director prior presenting him with the award. A lifetime veteran to public service, Duran served in the military and supported the early Chicano rights movement prior being hired by the CCC in 1978. Eleven years later, he was recruited to lead the local Corps in San Diego. He’s been its Number One supporter ever since.

Born and raised a dark skinned Hispanic boy among the chili and oil fields of southern New Mexico during the uncomfortable and often violent years prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Duran, himself, has served time in the trenches. He’s no green, wet-behind-the-ears rookie and has well earned his stripes with a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of the disadvantaged and underprivileged.

Duran, supported by an equally dedicated staff, runs an $8.5 million organization, 90% of whose revenues are derived through fee-for-service contracts. That percentage—I might point out--is 64% higher than the collective average of all the Corps. Duran doesn’t mess around and knows well the value of self sufficiency in strained economic times. With hundreds of lives dependent upon the financial viability of the organization, Duran constantly strives to leverage more opportunities for his Corps to earn its own way in a highly competitive marketplace.

The Urban Corps is obviously holding its own. But, like any company today, it feels the need to continue evolving services and products in response to constantly fluctuating market demands. Building on a foundation of successful services, the Urban Corps is working towards acquiring its general contractor and landscape architecture license that will enable them to bid on projects for which they are currently ineligible. With generous support from SDG&E, its GreenBuild Program that had previously provided Corpsmembers training in green building, weatherization and solar panel installation, is being expanded to include an onsite green home improvement learning module and web-based green building and energy auditing certification/training. The Urban Corps is also expanding its award winning Urban Forestry Program to develop its own nursery in which to grow quality native stock for affordable resale to its own service contracts that allow Corpsmembers to plant thousands of trees a year in public right-of-ways throughout the county. And, its Corps-to-Career Program just launched its Green Careers Apprenticeship Program (GCAP) in effort to develop viable post Corps careers not just jobs for Urban Corps graduates.

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At the Corps Network award ceremony last week, Duran was quoted as saying, “For the last 20 years, I have been trying to work myself out of a job; when I am out of a job, it means that there are no more youth in need of a second chance in life. They are on the right track, they are educated, and this world and its environment are a better place. That is what we should all hope for. “

He’s right; it is indeed. Yet, with all his contributions, there will always be those in need and the youth of San Diego have been hard hit by this last recession, leaving more than 25% unemployed. After 33 years at 75 Duran may finally be ready to hand over the reins to yet another generation of committed leaders.

Typical from a man who does nothing in half measures, Duran recently requested staff, friends and family to make donations to his beloved Urban Corps in lieu of birthday presents. His aim was to raise an unprecedented $75,000 in a single Urban Corps fundraising campaign. As with most things he’s set out to do in his life, he exceeded his goal.

The $100,000 plus raised in under two months will now be used by staff in this year’s “10 to 1 Campaign” aimed at leveraging matching contributions from 10 or more donors in effort to raise its first million. These funds will be used to establish an endowment fund which will provide fiscal sustainability for this community icon. For a struggling nonprofit with no cash reserves due to the acquisition and construction of its new partly LEED certified campus, this is no small endeavor.

For more information about San Diego’s local Urban Corps or to contract them for conservation projects or to serve as a hiring partner sponsoring GCAP apprentices, call 619-235-6884 and ask to speak to the man himself, or to Anne Bernstein, his right hand--or visit www.urbancorpssd.org.

Photos, courtesy of the Urban Corps. Pictured with Mr. Duran are Ed and Shelby Wilbur.

Comments

Ruth Newell Feb. 21, 2012 @ 10:03 p.m.

And a great many other things as we all are :) Thanks for reading me, Quillpena.

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Ruth Newell Feb. 22, 2012 @ 1:21 p.m.

I've added an update on Jordan Mack from the previous story.

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Tallsharon Feb. 22, 2012 @ 4:24 p.m.

Now I'm gonna have to do $75 for 75. Nice!

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MackZender Feb. 25, 2012 @ 8:53 p.m.

Well, aren't you a diversified writer, Ms. Shoes. I like the way you told this story about the Urban Corps. Again, good writing. I see Corpsmembers at the train station almost every morning. I notice them not just because there are a few of them and are all in uniforms, but because they also all are generally carrying hard hats and other gear. I've often wondered about who they were. Now I know. Thank you.

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Ruth Newell Feb. 26, 2012 @ 7:12 p.m.

I am new to the area, McZ and have just recently come to learn about the Corps myself. Think the work they do for the community is great and I have a soft spot for the underdog. Thanks for taking the time to read both pieces. Truly appreciate it.

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