N.Y. to S.F.: From Corps to Shining Corps : Conservation Groups Cooperate in Ambitious Bicoastal Exchange Program


San Francisco and New York are 3,000 miles, a three-hour time difference and a five-hour plane trip apart. Manhattan is an island, and San Francisco, surrounded by water on three sides, likes to think of itself as island-like and exotic. Both have many tall buildings, bustling financial districts, elegant restaurants, outrageous real-estate prices and famous opera companies.

But anyone who thinks the two cities are otherwise remotely similar should talk to the nine New York City Volunteer Corps members and the 10 members of the San Francisco Conservation Corps who recently undertook an ambitious cultural, geographical and professional exchange program, switching places long enough to find out that life is very different at either end of the continental rainbow.

"That part over there is straight out of Mr. Rogers' neighborhood," an incredulous New Yorker named Lisa Lyons said, waving toward the low-to-medium skyline of Bay Street, across from the SFCC headquarters in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Mason.

Out of a Storybook

"Like it's out of a storybook," added a wistful Jarual (Junior) Green, 19.

Across the continent, preparing for a day of heavy-duty cleaning work at a Harlem senior citizens service center, San Franciscan Robert Paige, 22, was equally disbelieving about what he had encountered in the Big Apple.

"These people, it takes a lot to snap these people," Paige said, shaking his head in wonderment. "They could see somebody walking down the street naked. They'd just keep walking, like it's nothing new. Somebody could get shot, they'd stand there and drink their Coke, like 'so what?' "

"There's more of a variety of people here," Linda Washington, 22, said, suddenly transported from her home in San Francisco's Bay View-Hunters Point district to a center for mentally retarded and developmentally disabled children in the Bronx. "People's attitudes are different here, in the sense that they are more aggressive. People are not as open-spoken as they are in San Francisco."

Or this, from a decidedly diplomatic Kathy Royer, the SFCC work supervisor detailed to accompany her charges on their sojourn in New York: "There is something real exciting about New York that's not in San Francisco. On the other hand, there's something real comfortable in San Francisco that's definitely not in New York."

"Hands across the Rockies" was how one observer described this pioneering effort to expose these young participants to what generally are regarded as model national youth service programs. Two and a half years old, the San Francisco Conservation Corps employs an average of 80 to 85 workers at any given time, and most clock in at 20 to 22 years old. By contrast, the New York City Volunteers Corps, known most commonly as CVC, was first proposed in January, 1984, with the intention of training upwards of 1,000 young people in public-service capacities.

CVC members tend to be younger than their West Coast counterparts: Most average in the 17 to 20 range. Whereas SFCC members are paid $3.35 per hour for their 32-hour week, CVC'ers live up to their middle name and work on a volunteer basis. They receive, however, a weekly transportation-and-lunch-money stipend of $80, and upon completion of one year of service are promised a $5,000 scholarship for college or vocational studies, or a cash payment of $2,500. New Yorkers work five days a week, and are encouraged to take classes at night. In San Francisco, Friday is set aside as an unpaid, mandatory education day, where SFCC'ers brush up on academic and work skills.

Focus on Physical Skills

At the SFCC, the focus is primarily on physical skills. In seven work crews of a dozen or so members per crew, corps members build playgrounds, dig ditches, groom trails. City Volunteer Corps workers work in teams of 10 to 12, and focus almost exclusively on human services. They work in hospitals, senior citizen centers and at recreational facilities around New York's five boroughs.

San Franciscans receive on-the-job training, while New York corps members spend their first week in a rigorous rural training program that many liken to the Marines and Parris Island. To simulate the City Volunteer Corps experience, San Francisco Conservation Corps members were whisked off almost instantly to the training center nearby in Tusten, N.Y.

"Tustin is in Orange County," work supervisor Kathy Royer clucked facetiously. "Everyone knows that."

Chest-deep in tule reeds at a drainage ditch opposite the San Francisco Airport, Dario Robertson, just turned 18, admitted he'd be glad to get back to his CVC job as escort to a social worker in the Bronx. That position is "pretty rough," Robertson said, but compared to what he's doing in San Francisco, it's a picnic.

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