Advocating for Corpsmembers Near and Far

In studying criminal justice as an undergrad, Masters of Social Work student Sy Harris realized that the young adults in the juvenile justice system are not adequately supported.  Sy observed that these young adults weren’t wholly aware of their own legal situation; or, their well-being and health issues went unaddressed.  These realizations fueled Sy’s desire to go into social work.

Sy is one among this year’s interns in Civicorps’ support services department, joining during the pandemic while working on their MSW at the University of Southern California.  The reality of the past year, however, has Sy communicating remotely from their home in Virginia. It’s not without its difficulties, but flexibility is a must. During the pandemic, Sy gives guidance by “showing [Corpsmembers] how important it is to maintain their stress to be able to function, [or to] seek help without feeling judged or anything like that.”

“[We communicate] through phone calls, text messages, email—depending on where they’re at and how best to get a hold of them,” says Sy. “Sometimes if I’m being ghosted, it means they don’t want to be bothered.”  Thankfully, Sy has the patience and the training to meet Corpsmembers where they are.

Through education and job training, Civicorps gives young adults the opportunity to build their own futures. Beyond our core mission exists wrap-around support that provides holistic, trauma-informed care for youth.  In fact, it’s the depth and breadth of our support services that truly distinguish Civicorps from other job training and educational programs.

Sy Harris, Master of Social Work candidate at the University of Southern California.

(From left to right) Corpsmembers Roderick, Jasmine, and Daisy are joined by Lead Counselor Natasha in building a community garden beside the Job Training Center in West Oakland.

Providing Many Types of Mental Wellness Support

Civicorps strives to create a safe space to find support for Corpsmembers in reaching their goals, overcoming challenges, and healing from trauma. On-site counseling and continual support means youth have access to two full-time Case Counselors, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a Master of Social Work (MSW).  Civicorps’ Outreach and Retention Specialist and Dean of Students also provide continual motivation and guidance as our participants progress through the benchmarks of the program.

Beyond the onsite staff readily available to assist Corpsmembers, Civicorps engages MSW interns like Sy to provide additional support. Civicorps has long time relationships with MSW programs at several Universities, which enables us to welcome graduate students as interns. In this way, the hands on learning in social work counts towards the completion of their program. MSW internships at Civicorps typically last an academic year.

“MSW interns are given a small case load,” explains Lead Counselor Natasha Vinakor. “[They] focus on a select few to really give someone the care and attention they need.”

“Pre-pandemic, MSW interns were placed at the [Job Training Center] working with conservation interns,” recounts Natasha. “They were meeting in-person sometimes and going out with crews. At the Academy, MSW interns would sometimes sit in classes and make in-person appointments.”

Now, building a relationship takes time. MSW interns must do so without having ever met someone in real life. Sitting in classes, for example, helped students get used to and be more comfortable around each new cycle of interns.

“But the interns do a great job doing everything they can, and for some Corpsmembers, it’s been a lifeline,” says Natasha. “There are some great successes, [especially] once people understand that they’re counselors, that they’re there to support them even though they’ve met only through the phones.”

And because of the pandemic, MSW interns are more accessible without sticking to a nine to five in-person office hours. In that way, Corpsmembers get support and answers quicker.

Advocates For Everyone

Sy sums it up simply: “A social worker is ultimately an advocate for everyone, but with schooling behind them.”

“The most crucial ability is to listen, be non-judgmental, and to be able to be present with the person. Even today people don’t even have friends who can be present like that and those are the crucial things a social worker has to learn and continuously re-learn in some situations, because you have internal bias that throws you off.”

Mental Health Resources:

National Alliance on Mental Illness –

Family Education and Resource Center –

In Natasha’s words: “Social work aims to support those in the greatest need to try to create an equitable society, which is why research is constantly changing to reflect better practices.”

Indeed, just as MSW interns gain hands-on experience, Civicorps benefits from a new crop of MSW interns every year.  And with interns coming into the Corps with fresh eyes, under the supervision of our expert support services team, Corpsmembers receive the support and resources they need to help navigate a variety of challenges and reach their goals.

Do you share our vision for a world where all youth have the education and resources needed for college and career success?

Join us! Add your name to our list here.

Filed under: Blog

A Teenage Voice Growing Into Leadership: Terk Johnson

Tervell Johnson, or Terk, has slowly built a legacy at Civicorps. With high school graduation approaching in June, Terk has a few more objectives to knock out of his portfolio before he can get to the finish line. But he has already built an impressive resume during his time at the Corps.

With recognition awards at the Academy ranging from Hardest Hitter in Life Skills to Most Improved in English Composition, Terk is no stranger to the spotlight.

He is also Co-Chair of the Civicorps Community Council and runs the meetings with staff member Matt Walker. As Co-Chair, Terk represents the voice of the Corpsmembers for the Council.

The Community Council provides a forum for the Civicorps community, made up of both staff and Corpsmembers, to provide input to the leadership team.

With its first meeting starting in January, the Community Council has its sights first set on fostering community building amidst the pandemic and providing resources to incoming Corpsmembers.

“For me, it felt like an opportunity to try something new,” explains Terk. “As Co-Chair, I’m learning how to take notes, how to run a meeting with adults in a professional environment—I’m still a teenager.”

Teenager he may be but Terk is comfortable in leadership positions. At the Job Training Center, Terk normally works with the East Bay Municipal Utility District under JTC Supervisor Jeff Chilcott’s C-2. Terk regularly mentors newly-trained Conservation Interns, or redhats. Often times when using power tools, Terk likes to demonstrate before giving them a go at it.

“I like to have them focus on what they’re doing, then give pointers or tips after.”

Terk is both enrolled in the Academy and the Job Training Center, urged to join by family members, but his journey with Civicorps actually started at a much earlier age.

In addition to serving young adults, Civicorps Academy used to have an elementary school, a K-5 charter school in north Oakland. There, among the young students in attendance, was Terk.

With art integration as a part of the primary school’s focus, it’s no wonder that Terk’s recollection of the school relates to the arts.

“I remember performing Jackson 5 songs auditioning for a talent show at Civicorps Elementary,” recalls Terk. “But I like to sing all genres.”

Music and all its genres is something Terk enjoys on the regular. On the walk from the JTC on Fifth Street over to the Administration building on Myrtle Street for this conversation, Terk mentions that he was listening to both R&B and country, among others.

When asked about graduation, Terk relays the general anxiety about not knowing what’s to come next. And yet, he looks forward to what’s to come with the arts still in mind.

“I was just discussing with my grandmother about going to college to study film: acting, directing, [or] producing.”

Terk is currently listening to:  

What would he like to focus on in the film industry?

Terk didn’t hesitate with his answer: Oakland.

“Most biographical movies, movies about other people, the majority of it is fake. I want to portray Oakland as a real place. What really goes down.”

With his work at the JTC and the Academy and participation in the Community Council, Terk has an active voice in the West Oakland community.

He knows what really goes down.

And we can’t wait for his voice to reach graduation and reverberate well beyond it.

Do you share our vision for a world where all youth have the education and resources needed for college and career success?
Join us! Add your name to our list here.

Filed under: Blog, Student SpotlightTagged with: ,

Connecting our Corpsmembers to Conservation Careers

How are Black folks building community power in East Oakland?  How do you get a job at East Bay Regional Park District?  Do you like refurbishing electronics?  Ever thought about majoring in Conservation & Resource Management at Merritt College?  These are just a few of the questions and topics discussed at our annual College & Career Fair on April 9.

Dozens of Corpsmembers and staff participated in the Fair (over Zoom of course) with a full roster of presentations from an array of vocational and college partners.  Our friends from Rising Sun Center for Opportunity, the Contra Costa Water District, Merritt College’s Conservation and Resource Management program, EBMUD, Black Cultural Zone, EBRPD and Tech Exchange joined us for a lively and interactive morning of presentations and conversations.

Eduardo Drops Some Knowledge

We’re a tad biased, but we were especially excited to welcome alumnus (Class of 2003) and current Board member Eduardo Chaidez to the Fair.  The eagle-eyed reader will remember that we profiled Eduardo upon his appointment to the Civicorps Board in July 2020. At the College & Career Fair, Eduardo gave an in-depth presentation about his path to becoming an Interpretive Park Ranger for the National Park Service.

Eduardo explained that because the National Park Service (NPS) employee roster is 77% white, they do lots of outreach in colleges to recruit staff of color.  While studying as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, Eduardo did a Latino Heritage Internship Program through NPS.  He notes that he wouldn’t have even considered the internship if he hadn’t already been exposed to national parks and conservation work, starting at Civicorps in the early 2000’s, followed by a stint in the Backcountry Trails Program.  In fact, Eduardo says the Backcountry Trails Program changed his life.

It really showed me there was a whole world out there; it changed my perspective on a lot of things for a kid from deep East Oakland.  It taught me the importance of protecting nature and the meaning of conservation.

Fast Forward to 2021

As an Interpretive Park Ranger working at the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, Eduardo shared his perspective on how he engages visitors about Muir, aka the well-known “old white guy who lived a long time ago.”

It’s difficult to get people connected when they see a photo of Muir with President Teddy Roosevelt at Yosemite, taken upon the establishment of national parks. Eduardo takes care to share the bigger picture by looking at the other side of the story – there were indigenous people cultivating and inhabiting the land in Yosemite for centuries before John Muir arrived.  As well, Eduardo pointed out, a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers was assigned to protect Yosemite during Roosevelt’s visit.  The 9th Cavalry Troops were among the first ones to protect Yosemite, Yellowstone and Sequoia National Parks from poachers, wildfires, and they built trails and roads as well. They were arguably the first park rangers, after whom the modern ranger hats are modeled.

The history of people of color and the outdoors runs deep….

….so concluded Eduardo, as he invited Corpsmembers to reach out to him directly with questions about working for the National Park Service.

In all, it was a terrific day of forging connections and sharing inspiration for careers in conservation.  Thank you to all our friends and partners, and especially to Eduardo, for coming to share your knowledge!  Hats off to you!


Filed under: Blog, NewsTagged with: ,

Marina Loves Her Steel Toe Boots

Marina Orozco has experienced life at Civicorps from lots of different angles.

She enrolled as a full time student on March 4, 2020 – just 2 weeks before Alameda County went into its first Shelter in Place. Six months later, she started a paid internship at our Job Training Center (JTC) while going to school part time.  She was part of the crew driving to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley every day to distribute groceries to families in need.  When our Food Intern went on temporary leave, Marina stepped up to cover for her. And when our Academy Intern left for college, she was tapped to fill in for him.

Did we mention she’s still working part time at the JTC on the CalTrans crew, AND going to school to earn her high school diploma?  And she’s getting almost all A’s and earning Hardest Hitter class awards despite the challenges of learning remotely through Distance Learning!  Marina’s drive to succeed is so powerful, she juggles all of these responsibilities while single parenting 4 children under the age of 9.

“If you take advantage of the opportunities at Civicorps in the right way,” says Marina, “you can definitely get somewhere.”

Marina has nothing but positive words about the staff at Civicorps and the support she has received since she arrived.  Everyone has been warm and welcoming, and folks are always ready to teach her something new and help one another.  But Marina reserves her highest praise for her JTC Supervisor, Marisela Saeteurn, with whom she has bonded deeply.

“Marisela is like a mother hen” gushes Marina.  “She teaches the right way to do everything. She makes it fun even though she’s strict. She says ‘get the job done the way I teach you, and we’ll have a good day’; most of our days at JTC are good days.”  Marina loves her time at our Academy (where she earned her Class C learner’s permit recently through Avery’s Driver’s Ed Seminar), and with Marisela’s crew working for CalTrans.  After all, as she puts it, she gets to switch off between dressing like “herself” and wearing her steel toed boots!

The day we spoke was a hugely important day for Marina – she had just discharged from parole, after having been on either probation or parole for 15 years.  “I’m finally done with the system,” she glows, “but I don’t think I would have done it if I wouldn’t have enrolled here, because Civicorps has taught me to be responsible, have great communication, and create safe boundaries.  Taught me to be smart in different ways – I’m really happy.”  “Civicorps is like home to me,” she continues, “I don’t ever want to find another job.”

Congratulations Marina! We’re not only proud of you, but we stand in awe of your accomplishments.

We are so excited to see you on your way to earning your High School Diploma and your Driver’s License this coming year.  Even if you do find another job outside Civicorps someday, your Civicorps family will always be here for you.

Filed under: Blog, News

So, You Wanna Be a Park Ranger?

Pop Quiz: which one of these parks has a conservation contract with Civicorps?

a) Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park
b) Vasco Caves Regional Preserve
c) Roberts Regional Recreation Area
d) Las Trampas Regional Wilderness

If you answered all of the above, you are correct – virtual high five!  Civicorps’ Land Management social enterprise operates in all of these public parks and preserves and many more around the East Bay.

Yup, we’re serious about maintaining and improving our parks.

That’s why we’re so excited when our Corpsmembers explore careers in public land management.  This spring, Civicorps is thrilled to support 3 young adults enrolled in West Valley College’s Introduction to Park Management course.

Interning at Civicorps exposed Hector Abarca, Jr. to a potential career pathway in parks management, and he was inspired to take the Intro to Park Management course to build on his growing knowledge of conservation work.  In addition to learning about the history of our national and state parks, Hector enjoys the camaraderie.  Says Hector:

“It’s good to see others [in the class] interested in the same thing; others who want to soak up the same kind of knowledge.”

Before Civicorps, Hector wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his career.  Now, his eyes are open to a potential career path as a park ranger.

Keep on soaking up that fantastic parks knowledge, Hector!

Filed under: Blog, News

A Journey to Racial Equity

Spring is just around the corner and of course, this month marks the anniversary of the Bay Area shutting down due to the pandemic.  Throughout these past 12 crazy months, Civicorps has stayed focused on supporting our young people with education and paid job training.

Thus far in the pandemic year, Civicorps has engaged 146 young people in paid job training.  They have completed over 88,850 hours of work for our partners and the community and have earned over $1,500,000!

Pandemic or not, rain or shine (or wildfire), we are deeply committed to providing a space for young people to grow and take steps toward their career dreams.  In order to assist in the fulfillment of those dreams it is important we address the inequitable systems that negatively impact our BIPOC Corpsmembers.  While this work is ongoing, one way to address historically oppressive and racist systems is by using our network to connect Corpsmembers to well paid career paths with dynamic agencies who provide key services and growth opportunities.  All the while, we contribute to the desired diversification of these workplaces.

“If a man doesn’t have a job or an income he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Since 2017, Civicorps has been proud to participate in the inaugural cohort of The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative (MFI).  The MFI seeks to expand career exposure and increase employment in conservation and resource management for youth and young adults of color.  Through this effort, we explore unconscious bias and structural racism within The Corps Network, our member Corps, and America’s land management agencies.

This Friday, 20 of Civicorps’ Conservation Interns will participate in the latest MFI workshop, “Sending the Right Signal.”  This anti-racism workshop focuses specifically on raising our racial awareness and addresses the need for healing from racism.

We’re honored to be part of the Moving Forward Initiative, and invite you to learn more about it. 

Filed under: Blog, Notes from TessaTagged with: ,