Conservation Corps is building a better city
THE first morning Michael English showed up at the San Francisco Conservation Corps, he sported a cane, broad-brimmed hat, and one pants leg tucked roguishly in a boot. The young black ``looked a lot like a pimp,'' one corps member says. Mr. English stayed less than a week. He arrived 15 minutes late one day - in the middle of morning exercises - and corps director Robert Burkhardt told him to hit the road.Skip to next paragraph
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One extra chance
But everyone gets one extra chance with the Conservation Corps - a year-long work and education program for low-income urban ``at risk'' youth aged 17 to 24. And English came back. He's now been with the corps six months and is ``a changed person'' - a recent father who plans to ``take it all the way this time. I was getting too old to sit around the house, to be just another person on the street. I want to be a carpenter - do something.''
English is one of a host of young men and women benefitting from this modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which stresses discipline, responsibility, vigor, and cooperative work habits. Corps members, who hear about the program from friends, family, or the media, start at $3.35 an hour. The SFCC is a cross between military boot camp, high school, and a 1960s encounter group:
Each morning at 7:30, corps members do a strenuous workout, including a mile run. Then they take off in crews of 10 across the city to different jobs: building community playgrounds, erasing graffiti, planting trees. They write in a journal each lunch period; they also take eight hours of school each week. It's a completely different life from what most corps members - who come mainly from minority welfare families in the barrio and the ghetto - are used to. ``We get about three weeks to overcome negative behaviors and habits that have acculturated over a period of about 18 years,'' says Mr. Burkhardt, the guiding light of the San Francisco program.
If corps members can make it past the first three weeks, he says, chances are good that they will stay. When Burkhardt started the SFCC in 1980, it was one of only two such programs in the country. Today, nearly 50 major cities have bought into the idea.
All corps members or ``newbies'' - as they are called for the first weeks - must be on time every morning, or they are ``fired.'' They are also out if they start a fight or are found using drugs. The attrition rate is high: About 70 percent don't last.
``It's important to challenge these young folks - not in a negative way, but in a loving way,'' says Burkhardt, a former Peace Corps volunteer. His ideal for the corps is summed up in a line by Ulysses in Tennyson's poem of the same name: ``To make mild a rugged people, and thro' soft degrees subdue them to the useful and the good.''
`Antidrug' exercise program
But this morning, as he barks instructions to corps members on the still-wet excercise field, Burkhardt is not especially poetic: ``OK, everybody's here this morning, that's good. We've got an announcement. Edmund Ferdinand got a job yesterday at Zoo, Inc. [Applause.] That's a silk-screening firm. Now, we've got a lot of work to do today - a lot of work. But first let's do the run.'' And off the corps goes at a trot, Burkhardt trailing close behind. The exercises, he says, are his antidrug program.
Crew No. 4's supervisor, Janet Gomez, a black, 26-year-old graduate of the University of Rhode Island, greets a reporter when the run is over: ``You're coming with me today, so let's hurry. My van's always the first one out of here.''