A few good whacks from 21-year-old Sharon Burton's pick helped bring down Fanny Chow's chimney Monday.
About three blocks away in Alhambra, Burton and her crew of 10 helped Willard Klein collect about 3,000 bricks that had been scattered across his front yard after last Thursday's earthquake knocked down brick facades in front of two homes he ownes.
Wearing hard hats, goggles and dark brown uniforms with patches identifying them as members of the California Conservation Corps (CCC), 53 young people have helped clear wreckage from at least 200 Alhambra homes.
"They came by and offered to help," said Klein, 57, who lives in the 300 block of Ramona Road. Klein said he wasn't sure how he would have managed without the free help.
Corps members helped Mary Santora and Chow, who live in the 1800 block of Sierra Vista Avenue, knock down their damaged chimneys and pile bricks on the sidewalk. It was the kind of help they offered many other Alhambra residents.
"I think it gives them a little responsibility," Santora said. "I was grateful."
Dealing with Mother Nature and California disasters is not a new experience for corps members.
A typical week could include fighting forest fires, creating hiking trails in the mountains or clearing brush from busy highways. After disasters such as earthquakes, corps members are dispatched to cities to assist clean-up efforts.
Susan Levitsky, public information officer for the corps, said members of the Sacramento-based state agency must be California residents between the ages of 18 and 23 who are not on probation or parole.
Those who join are paid the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, Levitsky said.
"People sign up because they want . . . challenging outdoor work," she said.
The 53 corps members working in Alhambra this week either live at or work from the only CCC center in the San Gabriel Valley, at Lanterman Hospital in Pomona. Those who live at the center have costs of room and board deducted from their pay.
Laughing and joking Monday after a 12-hour shift that started at 7 a.m., the crews talked about their work.
"How many houses did you do today?" 18-year-old Scott Patrick was asked.
"Oh, about 20."
"By yourself?" retorted a fellow worker.
Patrick, from Concord in Northern California, has been a CCC member for only a month.
Bonus or Scholarship
"After I got out of high school, I didn't know what to do," Patrick said, so he joined the corps to gain work experience. He is also looking forward to the $500 bonus or $1,000 scholarship offered workers at the end of a year.
David McCarthy, 18, from San Bernardino, said he joined the corps to "keep off drugs and keep away from my family, who are all on drugs."
A month with the CCC has taught McCarthy how "to take orders and keep my mouth shut when I should," he said.
Ken C. Wallace, 19, joined the corps to escape the gangs that rule the streets in the Los Angeles neighborhood where he was born.
Wallace, once a member of the Harlem Gang on the Westside, said his father was the driving force behind his decision to join the CCC.
Arturo Cruz, 19, a corps member for 10 months, said he has worked on mop-up crews in the San Bernardino National Forest after fires, "walking a lot of miles making sure that there's no hot spots."
Cruz, who hopes to pursue a career in forestry, for seven years was a member of Vickies Town, a Mexican gang on the Eastside.
The corps gives youngsters "an opportunity to grow up," he said.
As a crew leader and as one of only seven women in the four work crews operating Monday, Burton said she has learned the meaning of hard work and how to get along with people.
It is sometimes hard going, she said. "You just have to keep up with (the men)."
The joking and teasing was interrupted by a sharp command from a supervisor to "hook-line."
Quickly, the crew members lined up, one behind the other.
Crew supervisor Michelle Whamsley explained the importance of the exercise.
"This way we can inspect their uniforms, make sure everyone is here, and it teaches discipline," she said.
Each crew consists of a supervisor, a crew leader and 10 members.
On Tuesday, the corps, working from a command post at City Hall, brought two more crews into Alhambra to help.
Mike Morales, an engineer with the Alhambra Fire Department who is overseeing the CCC cleanup, said it has saved the department hours of work.
Corps member Walter Mapp, 23, said Alhambra residents have "just been appreciative of what we've been doing since Friday."
The young people say they have benefitted from the experience as well.
"The rewards are there," said Anthony Scoma, 22, as he and his exhausted co-workers headed for food and rest.