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Wednesday, Jul 02 2014 10:09 AM

Tehachapi-based Conservation Corps pushing ahead

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Members of the FIELD conservation corps work on clearing land.

A Tehachapi-based organization that has initiated a Conservation Corps has achieved a lot over the last several months, especially in garnering a number of grants.

Farmworker Institute of Education and Leadership Development, Inc., (FIELD) a alternative school/work experience program for young adults, has opened doors for several students and is pushing ahead with conservation projects, according to the organization's president and chief executive officer.

David Villarino-Gonzalez, the CEO, said the program offers students an opportunity to earn work skills and certifications, as well as high school credits and more recently college credits.

FIELD is a large organization, based in Tehachapi, that helps provide job training and improvement in rural communities. The Conservation Corps in Kern County is its most recent endeavor.

People gain their high school diplomas while also working on a variety of projects that include working on the upkeep of Pacific Crest Trail, completing projects on the Kern River near Bakersfield and Lake Isabella, and helping out at Tehachapi Mountain Park

"All of those things give students something to aspire to," Gonzalez said.

FIELD recently gained certification as a 21st Century Conservation Corps, allowing the organization to conduct federal work anywhere in the state of California.

On June 2, FIELD was also awarded two grants from the California Department of Parks and Recreation for $487,446 for restoration efforts on the off-highway road areas around the Trona Pinnacles in north San Bernardino County and near Calico.

Gonzalez said that grants require a 25 percent match.

Another potential is that the Bureau of Land Management recently authorized FIELD to conduct on up to $500,000 worth of work, mostly in the Bakersfield and Ridgecrest field offices. While the funding has been authorized, the BLM still needs to divvy out the money to FIELD and other agencies.

FIELD is also poised to receive $10,000 from Rabobank America at its June 20 graduation ceremony in Bakersfield. Gonzalez said that will help the start-up costs for recycling programs.

"In order to be a certified Conservation Corps, you need to have a recycling program," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the conservation corps was officially chartered in October 2012 at meeting involving FIELD, students, local government agencies, the Los Angeles Conversation Corps, and Second District Supervisor Zack Scrivner and the county parks and recreation director, Bob Lerude.

"We showed presentations about how students would be given work experience and how it would be funded," Gonzalez said.

From there, everything fell into place, especially with grants from the county and partnerships, especially among the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District, Bear Valley Community Services District.

The main part of the Conservation Corps resides in providing young adults with job training and work experience in areas of resource management, recreation and conversation.

"If they are working on projects at the water district for example, they learn about water conversation," Gonzales said. Students' studies for high school degrees correlate with the work skills they gain in the field.

The secondary part is to prep students for higher education or career paths. FIELD works with Santa Rosa College to provide college coursework in resource management. Beginning in July, the FIELD Conservation Corps will also be working with Bakersfield College on English courses.

Value to the community

Tom Neisler, operations manager for Tehachapi-Cummings Water District, noted the professionalism of those involved in the Conversation Corps.

"The FIELD folk came in to work in with our crews," Neisler said, to help clear sage brush and limb up trees as part of the maintenance of the district's flood control facilities. "FIELD was great to work with. We were right there with them and we kind of learned with them."

Neisler said that the program's benefits were obvious for its members.

"It helps them to interface with customers so they can work on a customer relations basis," Neisler said. "They also have to be responsible for being there, learn to safely use hand tools and provides a valuable element for the water district."

Larry Tuma, superintendent of public works for Bear Valley Community Services District, echoed Neisler's assessment of the FIELD Conservation Corps students.

"The kids they send over are very eager and sharp," Tuma said. "They worked for us last summer on painting some district buildings and built an irrigation system for the wastewater facility to help drip irrigate the trees."

Tuma added that it was a benefit for the district, especially when the service came at a lower cost than would be available at market rate for service, in no small part because of the various grants FIELD is eligible for.

"It benefits the community to put these students to work and it benefits the district for the amount of work," Tuma said. "It provides them with an opportunity for job skills."

Tuma added that Bear Valley may contract with FIELD again for the following year.

Students' lives impacted

The impact has benefits for the students involved, according to a group at the Tehachapi site.

"This program really does a lot for us," said Gabriel Clifton, one of the Conservation Corps participants. "It gives us the opportunities to go out and do work on different types of work areas."

Clifton added the work experience is well-rounded, and would provide a career trajectory beyond securing a high school diploma or college degree.

"It's been a really beneficial program, especially since I never thought I'd graduate," Clifton said. "In a traditional high school you wouldn't as much of the attention that you would need."

Jessica Flores, another student, echoed Clifton's view of the program.

"I wanted to get job experience and go out and be able to learn new things," Flores said. "I want to be focused on a lot of different things."

Flores was one of the students involved in helping to clear up and maintain sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Tehachapi Mountains.

"It was pretty hot but it was also nice," Flores said. "We got a lot of work done and it was nice for us to be helping other people."

Uriel Hernandez, another Conservation Corps participant, noted the work on the Pacific Crest Trail was primarily upkeep instead of restoration.

"It's like refurbishing the used trail," Hernandez said. "There might be patches where branches fall off and we'll go by there and clean it up, so we'll clean sections that needs work done."

Hernandez, like Flores and Clifton noted the difference between the two programs.

"You go to another school and what do you see in the students? They really don't treat each other like we treat each other," Hernandez said. "Here, we treat each other like family. You go to other schools and they have their own little groups."

Clifton noted that he and other students had not expected to gain more out of the program beyond the high school diploma.

Instead, they gained more from it, including Clifton and Hernandez receiving training in Sacramento.

"We both now have our crew leader certifications, they gave us training for CPR certification, trail certification and Community Emergency Response Team certification," Clifton said. "To have that on our background and on our resumes ... we never expected to have that on our resumes, so everything this program has done has been beneficial."

 

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