Today’s young people have lots of options to keep them occupied. If it’s not Twitter, it’s Facebook. If it’s not Skype, it’s Spotify. IPhones, Androids, laptops, tablets … the list seems to grow each month. All of these attractions, though, tend to keep young people in an insular, self-involved orbit that they rarely stray from. In the Antelope Valley, however, the Local Community Conservation Corp. (LCCCAV) is trying to change that dynamic by exposing youth to something bigger than themselves. They’re taking to the outdoors to teach teenagers and young adults about the environment and, along the way, maybe instill within them a love of the natural world.

The LCCCAV takes these young people, 18 to 25 years old, and works to break the cycle of lack of education and poverty that too often leads to prison. The program was the brainchild of Advancing Communities Together (ACT) which wanted to provide education up to a high school diploma and the potential to earn an hourly wage while developing leadership skills. The young men and women experience a chance for personal growth while gaining valuable marketing knowledge and skills so vital to a productive life. Rossie Cherry, well known in the area as executive director of ACT and for his work with AV Youth Build, oversees the LCCCAV and uses innovative approaches to teach the value of conserving resources, how to save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to instill cost-effective solutions that allow the youth to learn about and serve their community through environmental work.

Youth and the environment

“It’s an innovative and inspiring course that allows these kids to work toward their high school diploma, earn an hourly wage and learn about the natural environment,” Cherry said. The youth are enrolled for a maximum of 24 months, earn $10.50 an hour for their community work, and come from practically all over the Antelope Valley. Most of them have dropped out of school, are unemployed, and could be considered “at risk” for gang involvement, drug and alcohol addiction and a criminal record. Cherry said getting the kids involved in a worthwhile, valuable program of personal growth is one of the best ways to prevent the revolving cycle of the “school-to-prison pipeline” so often referred to when discussing youth from low-income neighborhoods.

“We want to teach leadership. These young people have the potential for great things if only given a chance,” Cherry explained. “We stress the value of taking responsibility for yourself, your family and your community. We want to eliminate those ‘personal barriers’ that so often hinder potential in our youth.”

Besides the obvious environmental work involved, the youth also learn parenting skills which most of the participants were never exposed to. They learn teamwork and dedication to a task whether its tree planting, brush clearing, trail maintenance, upkeep of rural or urban parks, or simply learning to appreciate the natural desert landscape. Cherry said the desert locale is a perfect venue for teaching about environmentalism.

“The Antelope Valley is the perfect environment to learn about the natural world and why it is so important to maintain it in pristine condition,” Cherry noted. “We are in the desert, and in proximity to the forest area with the Tehachapi Mountains nearby. These young people are learning valuable skills that they can carry with them throughout their lives. We challenge these kids to ‘come out of the box’ and take an extra step in life.”

A positive endeavor

So far the response has been very positive. Officials would like to see 50 young people each year participate since the program is often the “last option,” Cherry said, for those who have had trouble in school, at home and, sometimes, with law enforcement. It is an opportunity to move in a positive direction, become a team member and learn both the “soft” and “hard” skills needed for regular, gainful employment later on. Cherry mentioned that he would like to work more with the local school districts to recommend more youth to the program, but they are working with a few charter schools to expose more youth to regular employment and skills enhancement.

“Our goal and focus is to develop leaders in our community,” Cherry continued. “They have a commitment not only to transforming their lives, but rebuilding their communities as well.”

While the LCCCAV is part of 13 such entities statewide, it represents the first venture in Los Angeles County (representing Northern Los Angeles County). All of these stem from the original California Conservation Corp. (CCC) established in 1976 by Gov. Jerry Brown. Over the years, more than 120,000 young men and women have participated in the CCC with about 3,000 hired each year. The average length of stay is about nine months, and there are roughly two dozen residential and nonresidential locations statewide. In the past 40 years, the CCC has provided 74.1 million hours of natural resource work throughout the state and has served as a cost-effective labor force in working for more than 250 local, state and federal agencies each year. Statewide, these CCC crews take on more than 900 projects annually, generating in excess of $26 million to date for the CCC.

Educational resources

Over time, the CCC has provided almost 12 million hours of emergency response on nearly every major California natural disaster including floods, fires, earthquakes and more. As an example, the CCC members have filled more than 3.5 million sandbags during floods and storms. More importantly, more than 5,000 corpmembers have worked to complete their high school diplomas. Most corpmembers are men (74 percent) with 26 percent comprised of women. The majority of corpmembers hail from San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.

Los Angeles County has long advocated for land preservation and management. The Mountains Recreation and Preservation Authority (MRCA) since 1985 has worked to maintain our local open space and parklands, along with watershed lands, trails and wildlife habitat. The MRCA works in partnership with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in which young people participate in education and interpretation programs. These days, a big focus has been on the revitalization of the Los Angeles River where youth each day are learning more about the southland’s first source of water and how important it is to restore and revitalize the historic river for the enjoyment of future generations. Southland youth are helping to restore 11 miles of the river from approximately Griffith Park to Downtown Los Angeles and, if all goes well, reestablish freshwater marsh habitats to support increased populations of wildlife.

The National Park Service operates the Urban Archeology Corps., a national program where young people ages 15 to 26 years conduct a range of archeological tasks to learn about urban national parks and their surrounding communities. Some of the team projects include historical research, interpretation, excavation and public outreach. The archeology program is interesting because young people can use archeology as a vehicle for civic engagement to increase stewardship of national parks and their communities. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Areas—along with the State of California Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority—participate in this effort to encourage more youth to learn about the natural environment.

Healthy outdoor setting

Also operating nationwide is the United States Youth Conservation Corps. (YCC), a summer youth program that engages young people in meaningful work experiences on national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and fish hatcheries while developing an ethic of environmental stewardship and civic responsibility. YCC programs are generally eight to 10 weeks with members paid the minimum wage for a 40-hour work week. Youth 15 to 18 years, who are permanent residents of the United States, are eligible for employment without regard to social, economic, racial or ethnic backgrounds. Youth with physical challenges participate in the program as well. These young people work in a healthy outdoor setting on a variety of projects including building trails, maintaining fences, cleaning up campgrounds and improving wildlife habitat. They also learn about stream restoration, historic building preservation and also go on hikes and field trips to witness wildlife in their natural environment.

All of these programs, of course, are derived from the famous Civilian Conservation Corp. of the 1930s. In his first 100 days of office, President Franklin Roosevelt approved several measures as part of his “New Deal,” including the Emergency Conservation Work Act, better known as the CCC. Roosevelt proposed to recruit tens of thousands of unemployed young men (first enlisting them in a peacetime Army) and send them to refurbish the nation’s natural resources. The CCC soon became known as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” and was credited with renewing the nation’s decimated forests by planting an estimated three billion trees between 1933 and 1942. This was a crucial undertaking, especially in states affected by the Dust Bowl where reforestation was necessary to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold soil in place. The reforestation program was successful because it was responsible for more than half of the reforestation—public and private—than had ever been accomplished in the nation’s history.

FDR and the CCC

Young men flocked to enroll in the CCC. They were paid $30 a month (considered a godsend to many during the Great Depression), with mandatory $25 allotment checks sent to families of the men.

Camps were established in every state, as well as in Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. By 1935, there were 500,000 men located in 2,600 camps; California had more than 150 camps. The CCC helped to stimulate regional economies and provided communities with improvements in forest activity, flood control, fire protection, and over community safety.

While the CCC camps were segregated, more than 250,000 African Americans were enrolled in nearly 150 all-Black CCC camps. As well, an estimated 14,000 Native Indians were enlisted in the CCC and before the program was terminated, more than 80,000 Native Indians were paid to help reclaim the land that had once been theirs.

By 1942, there was hardly a state that could not boast of permanent projects as marked by the CCC. The program worked on millions of acres of federal and state land, as well as parks, in building new roads, stringing telephone lines and planting trees. America’s entry into World War II had effectively forced an end to the CCC, but by then more than 3,470 fire towers had been erected, 97,000 miles of fire roads had been built, a considerable push had been made toward disease and insect control, and thousands of campgrounds had been built. In all, more than 7.1 million days had been spent protecting America’s natural habitats of wildlife and more than 84 million acres of land had been refurbished for future use. Today, many of the remaining physical features the CCC built have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.