Horses, bees and snakes are just some aspects of working outdoors that still terrify inner-city resident Bridgette Smith, even after four months with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.
"We don't have horses in the projects like they do up here," said Smith, 22, as she leaned down to pick up a beer bottle from a scenic overlook on Mulholland Drive near Coldwater Canyon Drive. "I hate horses; they've got big teeth."
But Smith, whose fellow crew members call her "Neon" because she wears bright pink lipstick, has come a long way since she began working for the private, nonprofit corps that maintains and protects the city's natural resources.
"Bridgette's first day out, she was so scared (that) she started crawling down the mountain," said Debbie Langton, 27, Smith's crew supervisor. "By the end of the day, though, she had gotten over her fear of heights and was walking."
Smith and the other 44 members of the Los Angeles corps, two-thirds of whom are high school dropouts, face their fears and discover hidden strengths every day in the course of providing a service to the community, said program manager Bruce Saito.
"We call it the green badge of courage," Saito said, referring to
the green arm patch on the sleeve of each corps member's khaki uniform.
The corps hires young people ages 18 to 23 for a year and provides them with career guidance and employment experience. In return for $3.35 an hour, corps members are expected to give their all picking up trash and clearing brush.
Corps members must be at work by 7 a.m. to participate in a 35-minute exercise program that includes calisthenics and jogging. If they are a minute late and have not called in beforehand, they are sent home without pay. All day, except for a half-day on Fridays, they pick up trash, build picnic areas and clear 8-foot-high thistles and other fire hazards.
"The pay could be better," said David Mikes, 23, a high school dropout from Watts who credits the program with hiring him despite his criminal record, "but here they give you a lot more of a chance than in any other job."
Unlike most employers, the corps provides career counseling and expects its employees to move on if they find better jobs. It also offers members $100 for completing units toward a high school or college diploma.
Funded by the State
The incentive would be bigger if the organization could afford more, said executive director Martha Diepenbrock. Funding for the corps, about $1 million this year, comes from the state-funded California Conservation Corps, private donors and city agencies, Diepenbrock said.
Smith's crew is cleaning up the paved portion of Mulholland Scenic Parkway, a 13-mile stretch overlooking the city, as part of a $100,000 grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Members of Smith's crew said they don't plan to spend their lives picking up dirty magazines, hub caps and other debris from the side of the road, although their four-month stint sometimes feels like an eternity. Three weeks after they clean up one section of the road, it looks like a garbage truck came along and dumped its load, they said.
"The LACC wants us to be something when we get out," said Raymond Rodriguez, 22, a resident of East Los Angeles who said he hopes to become a real estate agent and get his daughter off welfare someday. "It never popped into my mind before this that I could be what I want to be."
The corps has fostered other crew members' dreams as well:
Tam Luong, 20, an immigrant from Vietnam who dropped out of high school because he was too embarrassed to speak in class, said his English has improved since he became a crew leader in the corps. Smoking a cigarette during a work break, he talked of rebuilding his family fortune and sending more money to his relatives back home.
Adela Martinez, 19, a wiry teen-ager, would like to become president of an aeronautics corporation someday. In the meantime, she plans to join the Army and sees the corps as "a stepping stone. Where I come from, most girls get pregnant and drop out and just get any kind of work."
Linda Spratley, 21, dreams of getting a job with the city as a gardener or caretaker that pays $1,341 a month. With her roommate Smith's help, she has been studying for the city's exam every night after work.
Raymond Garcia, 19, a high school dropout who spent the last year "relaxing" before joining the corps, has enrolled in night school. The shy young man credits the corps with "bringing me out more. They treat you right, and it makes you want to do more."
Twelve Dropped Out
Not all corps members have what it takes to survive the rigorous program. Twelve corps members have dropped out since April, Diepenbrock said. Mamusu Tinson, director of recruitment and training, said the corps has dropped three of the nine people who signed up for the most recent training session because of absenteeism or tardiness.
Smith has staked $100 on her ability to survive for the duration. With eight months to go, Smith said she is determined to win the bet with a friend despite her fears.
"When I first started, I couldn't do one push-up. Now I can do 20," said Smith, who plans to become a prison guard. "I bitch and complain about everything, but once it's over, I feel really good."