Corps Programs: Good for Nature, Good for YOUth  by John Griffith

There are a lot of reasons to love the 130+ corps programs in the United States. Who doesn’t love the idea of programs that hire youth to build trails on public lands, restore wildlife habitat, and respond to a community’s natural disasters (like wildfires and floods) while helping them get a high school diploma if they need it, and then offering them thousands of dollars in college scholarships after one year of service? What a great investment in our society! It’s a way better alternative than those same young folks just hanging out at mom’s house or on the streets without any employment prospects. The idea of masses of unemployed and bored American youth doesn’t sound good to anybody. It makes us anxiously recall that ominous phrase, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” There’s already plenty of bad press about idle-handed youth these days, but I know a whole bunch of young adults who are engaged in trying to improve their communities and the environment. They are corps members.

Let’s start by becoming aware of why corps programs are so important for our modern American economy. We’ve all heard that jobs are hard to come by these days, and that colleges keep getting more expensive, right? Those employers that are still hiring get to be really choosey because they have tons of applicants for each open position: even the low-paying ones. Job competition is fierce! The big picture gets even grimmer for the young job seeker when you throw in facts about diminishing natural resources, jobs outsourced overseas, and elected officials who seem like they strongly favor whoever can finance their re-election campaigns over those who can barely finance themselves and voted for help. It’s no wonder that studies show that young adults who thought they were about to embark on the American dream are instead finding themselves in a discouraged “dream-less” sleep on their parents’ couch.

Luckily, corps programs give just about any youth a chance to become engaged to help solve some of our environmental problems and build stronger, more-sustainable communities. Corps programs prepare youth to enter the workforce by teaching employable soft skills like a strong work ethic, a good at-work (professional) attitude, and a sense of team. Throw in some hard skills like installing solar panels, weatherizing houses, eco-restoration, emergency response training, and basic carpentry and, voila! there’s an employable youth. What’s really cool is that most people who are 18 to 25 years-old are eligible to join, even without any previous work experience, a high school diploma, or a place to live.

Let’s talk more about what it doesn’t take to join. If you (or the youth you have in mind) don’t have a high school diploma, no worries. Corps programs know how important education is to your future, so if you don’t already have a diploma, they provide the classes and require you to get one. And if you’re homeless, or fearing that your mom—who is hinting relentlessly about you finding someplace else to live—is about to reclaim her couch, then you’ll be relieved to know that some corps programs have residential facilities that are similar to college dorms or military barracks where you can stay while you’re a corps member.

Corps programs are definitely more than just workforce development programs that provide youth with tools to become more educated and employable. Participants experience significant personal growth in a short amount of time, and it’s not entirely due to things like the challenges laid out in the CCC’s motto: “Hard Work, Low Pay, and Miserable Conditions.” Corps programs offer the environment and opportunities that ignite transformational experiences. I like this definition from the Transperia group: A Transformational Experience takes us beyond the average, the mundane or the “usual” and creates an impact that somehow affects us.

There are many ways to have a transformational experience in a corps program. A lot of times it happens simply by spending time in nature. The CCC, for example, often takes corps members on eight-day “spikes” into the wilderness to build or repair trails. Since the trail (or similar project) is so remote, corps members (and their supervisor) camp for eight days a.k.a. “spike’ near the worksite. For a lot of newly recruited urban and suburban corps members, this is their first experience at sleeping in a tent, building a campfire, cooking and cleaning with a group, and discovering and exploring the vast “wild” of our national forests.

Watch the below video to get a step-by-step tutorial on how to find a corps program near you.

Sometimes it’s the interactions with the community that bring on transformational experiences. There are frequent opportunities for corps members to volunteer in their local communities. Sometimes volunteering at a homeless shelter, animal shelter, food bank, or old folks homes make youth aware of the power they have to exercise compassion and relieve unnecessary suffering in others. These experiences reveal to corps members that they have a responsibility to their community, and that inner-strength and healthy relationships can result from that service. They discover that it feels good to empower others.

Working on an ethnically/racially/culturally diverse crew certainly leads to transformational experiences. It helps corps members move beyond any conditioned prejudices to see that a creative exchange among people with various backgrounds enhances all who participate, particularly when that practice is approached with honor and respect. Members of corps programs make friends with crew members who are from the other side of the tracks and build bridges across those tracks that span lifetimes. This experience helps to dissolve the illusion of “otherness.”

There is much more that could be said about corps programs. Former corps members say it best. If you have been a member of a corps program, please share a brief testimonial of your experience below: especially mention how the experience transformed you. To learn more about the California Conservation Corps click here. To learn more about AmeriCorps, to click here. To find a corps program near you click here: Check out the Corps Network by clicking here. And please subscribe to my YouTube channel here—-> AWESOME!