THE CCC California Conservation Corps: low pay, hard work; Fighting fires and building a future

Like Snow White's Seven Dwarfs, members of the California Conservation Corps ''work, work, work the whole day through.'' And like Snow White, thousands of the state's residents - beset for the past two winters by flooding, landslides, and shore erosion - are glad the men and women of the CCC are available.

The blue hard hats of ''the C's,'' as they call themselves, have become a familiar and welcome sight. In addition to their usual conservation, energy, park, and other community work, the corps members, numbering some 2,000, have put in many 12-hour days (including night shifts) sandbagging and shoring up hillsides.

In the spring and summer of 1981, the C's took on the infamous Medfly (the Mediterranian fruit fly), which threatened to destroy the fruits and vegetables that California grows for the nation.

In these days of ''computer literacy'' and video games, the 18- to 23 -year-old members of the CCC would rather wield an ax on a fireline than manipulate a computer-game ''joy stick.'' They take pride in building a park trail or a stone wall; computer programming can wait.

The CCC takes more than its name from the Civilian Conservation Corps, which in the 1930s took 4 million Americans out of depression bread lines and put them to work on public projects. Life in the old CCC was much like life in the Army, and that's true of the California corps today.

Enrollees are promised ''hard work, low pay, and miserable conditions.'' But those who endure the rigorous discipline, demanding fitness program, and unremitting work schedule get a good deal more out of it, as many of them are eager to tell a visitor.

Officials of more than 35 other states, the sponsors of a bill in Congress to establish an ''American Youth Corps,'' and dozens of journalists have come to California or written to CCC officials, seeking to find out why this youth program has succeeded while many others have failed. Invariably, they have found corps members themselves the most eloquent witnesses for that success.

But the story of the California Conservation Corps is more than the sum of its members' experiences.

John E. (Jack) Dugan, a retired US Army colonel who was once a New York City policeman, became chief deputy director of the CCC when it was organized in 1976 , and was appointed director in 1981. He recently resigned to join the staff of California Attorney General John Van de Kamp.

Gov. George Deukmejian has named Robert J. Shelbe, executive director of the California YMCA's Model Legislature and Court since 1972, to replace Mr. Dugan.

Mr. Shelbe, who was scheduled to assume his new post April 25, said in a telephone interview that he feels the CCC ''provides vital services to the state'' and will expand in coming years.

''I feel very good about the CCC and how it has been managed,'' he added. ''I have no preset designs for change. As we discover ways to improve the organization, we will do it.''

In an interview prior to the naming of his successor, Dugan said he was ''proud that the CCC has been reasonably successful in developing a value system that gets to 18- and 19-year-olds.

''In the C's, work is not a burden, but an accomplishment,'' he asserts. ''We tell the youths, 'You are what you do.'

''It's shocking how much they want to relate to a little success - to something that gives a touch of pride and self-worth.''

Dugan is not just referring to school dropouts and young people from urban slums. Staff members say one reason the CCC has succeeded is that it does not ''target'' special groups for entry. Many young people who join are high school graduates from middle-class homes who have been excellent students, athletes, and even leaders. Some have had a year or two of college or have worked in white-collar jobs.

''You don't have to be a loser to get in,'' Dugan says. However, there are ''some pretty tough kids in the CCC.''

Established in July 1976, the second year of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s first term, the CCC was not an instant success. The outgrowth of a small-scale youth Ecology Corps that was begun in the administration of Gov. Ronald Reagan, the CCC had some early difficulty getting organized and setting its goals.

But in October 1976, Governor Brown appointed lawyer B.T. Collins, a Vietnam-hardened former US Army captain, as director. At the same time Colonel Dugan, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, was persuaded to forego an assignment as US military attache in Rome to become chief deputy director of the CCC.

Mr. Collins, with the bluntly honest approach of a drill sergeant, soon established a spirit of togetherness-in-adversity that in the days of the old CCC was termed ''the moral equivalent of war.'' With Dugan's organizational skill and careful selection of other key personnel, the California Conservation Corps was finding its identity by 1977.

In October 1981, Governor Brown made Collins his personal ''chief of staff,'' and Dugan became CCC director.

Although its basic organization, goals, and methods are well established, the CCC has not been allowed to become rigid. It continues to diversify its activities, set new goals, and find new ways to help its enrollees grow and mature.

The CCC works with federal, state, and local agencies in protecting natural resources; responding to emergencies such as fires and floods; and providing work opportunities, supplemental education, and career counseling to corps members.

Anyone between the ages of 18 and 23 who is not on probation or parole may apply. There are no race or sex quotas, but the CCC does try to have a female-male ratio that is close to that of California's general work force; it's about 37 percent female now. The racial and ethnic makeup of the corps is also roughly that of the state as a whole. And CCC officials make it a point to recruit handicapped people who are able to work. Spokeswoman Suzanne Levitsky says 5 to 6 percent of the current 1,800 CCC members have some sort of handicap.

The C's are paid the minimum wage, which at $3.35 an hour totals $581 a month. Out of that comes $145 for room and board. According to CCC officials, $1 .65 in benefits for every $1 spent on the CCC was returned in fiscal year 1981- 82. Many Californians who have seen homes saved by sandbagging of a levee or hiked well-maintained back-country trails would say that this is only part of the CCC's value. New members sign one-year contracts, but they are free to ''walk away.''

Rules are clear, and strict: Drugs and alcohol are prohibited in CCC centers; abuse of either is not tolerated, although members are considered adult and are not supervised when away from the center. No violence, malingering or refusal to work, or destruction of property is permitted.

Directors of the 26 CCC centers around the state have a large measure of autonomy. They can, and do, dismiss people for breaking the rules, though their chief aim is to have people stay in and solve their problems.

Just as important as such rules of personal conduct, CCC officials say, are those involving self-improvement. The C's get up at 5 a.m. and work all day, then attend evening classes to improve reading and writing skills. Those without high school diplomas are encouraged to obtain GED (General Educational Development) certificates. Members must keep a ''journal'' and write in it every day; some of these have turned into interesting literary efforts.

All corps members are required to attend classes in career development and conservation awareness; they learn how to write resumes and conduct interviews as well as how to clear streams and build footbridges. The CCC does not aim to prepare people for specific jobs. But the work habits and skills it imparts makes them employable as groundskeepers, highway workers, firefighters, and construction workers.

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