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Conservation Corps Rolls Up Its Sleeves in Long Beach

October 08, 1989|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The benches at Recreation Park are sporting a new coat of paint. The colorful Persian tiles decorating the park's old band shell look shinier than they have in years. And a 60-year-old park building that once served as a storage shed now houses a spiffy new office.

Thank the Conservation Corps of Long Beach, an old idea that's found new life. Based in the park, the corps is working diligently to spruce up its own back yard before fanning out over the rest of the city for a series of even more ambitious projects.

"We're going to be fixing Long Beach up," said Chauncey McQuarn, 20, pausing in the park's picnic area amid the pounding of hammers, scraping of sandpaper and buzzing of power drills. "I'm staying in Long Beach; may as well help make it a cleaner and better community."

Said Theresa Marino, executive director of the corps: "We're just getting our feet wet."

Concept Began in Depression

In fact, the idea of the corps first emerged more than 50 years ago when, hit by the Depression, the federal government formed the Civilian Conservation Corps and sent thousands of young people into wilderness areas to dig fire trails and create campgrounds. The workers were paid subsistence wages.

The modern California Conservation Corps got its start in 1976. And in recent years, private, nonprofit urban conservation corps have been organized in seven California cities including Los Angeles and, most recently, Long Beach. Inspired by a group of political, civic and business leaders who felt a need to do something for the city's unemployed youth, the Long Beach corps has been on the drawing boards since 1987. Three weeks ago it fielded its first work crews to begin, among other things, sanding, painting and replacing loose boards on the benches and picnic tables of Recreation Park.

The corps is open to unemployed men and women ages 18 to 23. They are paid $4.25 an hour to perform conservation- or preservation-oriented tasks for 32 hours a week. Thus, besides doing important jobs for the city, Marino said, participants receive valuable on-the-job training. "For many it's a rite of passage," she said. "It gives them a sense of spirit and team leadership; something they can look back on with pride."

Financed by Donations, Grants

Operated on an annual budget of about $350,000, Marino said, the program is financed by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations, as well as a $30,000 grant from the city and about $100,000 from the state.

Corps members--about 65% of whom are high school dropouts--begin each day at 7:30 a.m. sharp with half an hour of calisthenics, then work until 4 p.m. They have 30 minutes off for lunch.

Not all like the discipline.

Of the original 19 members, Marino said, four have dropped out. Recently, she said, staffers decided to soften a policy of docking corps members two hours of pay for one minute of tardiness after the young workers called a special meeting to complain. "It turned out very well," Marino said. "We're not a military dictatorship. We sat down and did a problem resolution."

Recruiting through flyers, newspaper ads and word of mouth, Marino said, the group hopes to initiate several new members later this week. Corps members are asked to make a minimum commitment of six months, she said, which they can renew indefinitely until reaching the maximum age. By the beginning of next summer, she said, the corps hopes to have a membership of at least 50.

Members will have their work cut out for them.

After completing the refurbishment of Recreation Park, Marino said, the group will paint some of the park's playground equipment. Then it will begin working in other parts of the city to paint and repair backstops and bleachers at the city's 42 ball fields; sift and replace the sand at many of the city's 234 children's playgrounds; repair benches and trim shrubbery at city parks, and renovate picnic and playground facilities at several of the city's marine recreation areas.

Later, according to Marino, the conservation corps will work on recapping the seawall at Alamitos Bay. And after that, she said, it will clean and paint light poles, paint the chain-link fence at a bridge, trim oleanders along parkways and roadsides, and remove debris from the sides of the 710 Freeway.

Most of the young workers seem to be looking forward to the tasks, despite some minor complaints about boredom, strict discipline and occasional interrogations by local police officers mistaking corps members for youthful truants.

"I'm learning to use electric tools," said Blanca Madrid, 21, one of the few women in the program. "I never did that before."

Said Kenny Jenkins, 20: "When we first got here we weren't a team; now we are. I love this job. We're helping ourselves and helping the city."

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