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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Offering Hard Work, Low Pay--and More!

But Conservation Corps Can Provide Hope

April 22, 2001|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dozen members of the California Conservation Corps sit on overturned buckets in an ocean of potted azaleas, their blue baseball caps bobbing above the green as they search for signs of the dreaded glassy-winged sharpshooter.

They pick up each leaf gingerly, inspecting both sides. Then they move to the next leaf, and the one after that, stem after stem, leaf after leaf, hour after hour. It's a slow, tedious, rotten job--par for the course in a program whose proud motto is: "Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions--and more!"

Some days, they hack at snake-infested brush that hasn't burned for decades. Other days, they haul heavy tools up mountainsides to clear weed-choked trails. But today, they are bent over at a nursery like monks studying medieval manuscripts--an uncomfortable pose, but one that can mean structure, discipline and self-confidence for young men and women who otherwise might be languishing in dead-end jobs or hanging out on the streets.

At 25, the CCC--known in corps parlance as "the Cs"--has played host to 80,000 young people trying to sort out their lives. They sign on for a year but can leave any time they want. No judge sentences them to the Cs. They can spend their minimum-wage paychecks on anything except booze and drugs.

They live at centers throughout the state, not in penal blocks but in dormitory-like settings without high walls or round-the-clock patrols.

That makes some people nervous, despite a litany of good works recited by corps officials.

As the local corps contingent of about 60 plans its move from the campus of Cal State Channel Islands to 10 acres near an upscale Camarillo subdivision, some of its new neighbors have expressed reservations.

"They're not upset, but they are concerned," said Rebeca Elliott, president of the homeowners association in Sterling Hills, a neighborhood of homes valued from $600,000 to $800,000.

Neighborhood Cites Concern Over Move

Elliott said she isn't fearful herself, but a few of her neighbors worry about "the quality of people--excuse the expression--moving in. It will continue to be an item they'll want us to bring up at our meetings."

Due to open in 2003, the $10-million corps facility will be next to the California Youth Authority's Ventura School, a heavily guarded campus for young offenders who have committed crimes as serious as killing someone.

"The school has never really been a danger," Elliott said, "but the fact is these young adults from the CCC are going to be able to wander the streets."

For two decades, the program has been housed on the grounds of Camarillo State Hospital, the state institution that is being transformed into Cal State Channel Islands.

Jeff Young, chief of the university's police force, said the corps members "have been really good neighbors."

Young said his department has received three or four calls related to the CCC in the past year.

"It's usually from a staff member kicking someone out for violating their rules," Young said. "They ask us to stand by, but the situation is usually resolved before we ever get there."

Suggestions that the program is a safe harbor for criminals irk people such as Glenn Henning, a teacher who helps corps members study for their GED tests.

As students weary from a day of labor pore over test-preparation books, he shakes his head at the neighbors' reaction.

"When the Santa Anas are blowing 80 miles an hour and the county Fire Department is stretched thin, who's going to defend their neighborhood?" he asked. "When those houses are threatened, who will be out on the front line?"

Modeled on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the California program was started by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976. Its recruits--"blue-hats" in corps jargon--are 18 to 23 years old. Some have been in trouble with the law, though none can be on probation or parole, or have committed violent felonies. They are paid minimum wage, minus $250 monthly for room and board. With raises and a possible $2,000 bonus after staying the full year, they don't make a pile of money in the Cs--but it's more than some would make outside the program.

Many are black or Latino. Half are high school dropouts. Some come to escape shattered homes, gangs, drugs, the full catastrophe.

At 23, Ron Welcome has parlayed his time at the CCC into a job fighting fires for the California Department of Forestry. If his girlfriend's pregnancy hadn't jolted him into action, he figures he would have wound up like his old gang friends in Carson--dead, imprisoned, or, at best, unemployed.

"I wanted to get out of the life," says Welcome, who is now the father of two and taking classes to enhance his firefighting credentials. "I had to do something."

Corps members start their day at about 6 a.m. with breakfast and calisthenics. Then they split into work crews for trips to parks, trails and other job sites. Contracting with public agencies, the corps has done jobs in Ventura County as diverse as weatherizing low-income homes and bolting bookshelves to school walls.

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