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SOUTH-CENTRAL : Corps Helps Workers to Go On to College

November 20, 1994

Some of them had dropped out of school, or run away from home, or were gangbanging in their 'hoods.

None ever believed they would hold a high school diploma in their hands.

Now 37 of these dropouts are headed for or are just starting college with $18,000 in scholarships awarded recently by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps.

"When I go to school I'm in my green LACC uniform. I go there with my nose in the air, proud of what I do," said Melissa Hurtado, 20, who is majoring in sociology and criminal justice at East Los Angeles Community College.

Hurtado is one of 150 Conservation Corps workers from ages 18 to 23 who clear brush, remove graffiti and plant trees in South-Central, Downtown and East Los Angeles. Help finishing high school and encouragement to continue in college are a bonus of the minimum-wage jobs.

Since 1989 the 8-year-old nonprofit agency, sponsored by government grants and private donations, has awarded 62 college scholarships to corps members including Hurtado. Scholarships are awarded to corps workers based on personal essays.

When Hurtado first joined the program she was embarrassed about working on the streets. She thought people looked at her as too dumb to work anywhere else. But those concerns faded as she completed the corps' required adult education classes and began thinking about a future for herself and her son.

"My friends are in their twenties and are still partying, but I see myself as being different from my friends. I pulled away. Now I think they look at me as a role model," said Hurtado, who obtained a high school equivalency degree after two years with the corps.

The corps also helped turn Marissa Chagolla's life around when no one seemed to believe in her.

"I was failing most of my classes, I was 35 credits behind my senior year and my uncle would tell me to just give up because I was just like everyone else in my family who didn't graduate from high school," said Chagolla, who with the corps' help is the first in her family to graduate.

Now 20, Chagolla is living on her own for the first time with the financial independence she has gained with her corps job. Her next goal is to graduate from college. With her scholarship money, Chagolla will be able to buy her schoolbooks, the only thing that has kept her from attending Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

Likewise, with money earned through her Conservation Corps job, Doris Fuentes, 19, was able to move into her own apartment when she gave birth to her daughter last April.

After Fuentes passes her high school equivalency exam, she plans to attend East Los Angeles Community College, where she wants to study to be a nurse.

Before her stint in the Conservation Corps, Fuentes said she smoked, drank and moved in with friends because she and her mother did not get along. Now, she wants to be a role model for her daughter.

"Before I started working at (the Conservation Corps), I didn't pay any attention to the condition of my community, but now I know how important it is for me. I wouldn't like my baby growing (up) in a bad environment, therefore myself and the rest of us need to help to keep it clean," Fuentes said.

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