Journey to Graduation - Civicorps Grads June 2020

Last week, Civicorps was honored and humbled to share messages of hope and joy as we celebrated the enormous achievements of eight students who received their high school diplomas at our June 10, 2020 graduation ceremony.  We congratulate our Spring 2020 graduating class and celebrate their resilience and accomplishments! Read excerpts below from a few of the powerful graduation speeches they delivered.

Naomi

You have to get up every single day and make sure you never quit on yourself.

I went through a rough road to get here today. The first time I saw Civicorps was on an Instagram ad. I gave it a try and when the orientation came, I stepped into the building and saw the morning circle with all the students sitting down. I wanted to turn around and leave, I felt so scared to be there and in that moment I knew I wasn’t going to graduate because of how insecure I was. I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe that I could do it.

Civicorps was different from any other school I’ve been to. Every staff member I met was just so nice and supportive, something I didn’t really experience in other schools, and something that I knew I needed in order to keep going. I want to thank every single person who inspired me here and who supported me in ways I didn’t know anyone would ever do.

After I close this chapter, I will open a new one for college. I hope to get a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and also take an EMT course, just in case I change my mind. Hopefully five years from now I will have graduated from college and started my career. Today I can say I believe in myself when in the beginning I did not. Thank you to my friends and family!

Nichelle

I made a promise to myself I’d get it done.

I came to Civicorps last year, with the mindset that anything you start from this day forward you finish, and I did just that. Obtaining my high school diploma was the first thing I have ever done for me, I made a promise to myself I’d get it done. I left a $26 hour job, passed up a Muni job, I traveled hours a day, downsized my living, and survived a pandemic while still fighting racism and police brutality. Man, I deserve this!

Three strengths that I developed at the Corps are patience, working in a team, and academic skills. In the next six months I hope to enroll in college. A year from now I hope to be doing an apprenticeship in construction inspection. Five years from now I hope to be done with college for radiology and have a house. I’d like to thank my whole Civicorps family for making this experience worth it. I couldn’t have done it without you guys. I love y’all.

Jesus

Never give up!

My overall experience at the Corps was nothing but great because I have been learning how to make myself more mature and responsible, and learning new skills.  Before the Corps I used to think that things were easy. Now I know that to get things you want in life you have to have patience. That taught me to have patience for myself and others, and to advocate for myself. Three key strengths I developed while at the Corps are responsibility, respect, and collaboration.

My goal for the next six months are to try to get a union job or work for the City of Oakland. One year from now I hope to be at a more stable place in life. Five years from now I want to be traveling in Paris, France.

To be honest I never thought I would be able to graduate. My hopes were always down. Knowing I’m graduating now keeps giving me energy to do more.  I learned that if you need help, it is always going to be there, you just have to look for it.  I want to thank everybody at the Corps who helped me through my journey here and my family as well for keeping me motivated.  Never give up!

Mirna

I want to be a role model and impact my community.

My overall experience at the Corps has been hard. But I did it. Corps has helped me and supported me mentally, physically, and emotionally.

The teachers & counselors at Civicorps put me into different programs and helped me become a sober person. I had to acknowledge that I needed the help. Civicorps has taught me that I don’t have to rely on anyone else; that I can be independent and look for other kinds of support, instead of waiting on family to help when there are other types of family. Three key strengths I developed are communication, thinking about others besides myself, and advocating for myself.

My goals for the next six months after graduation are to save up for a car, enroll in community college, spend more time with my son, work less, and focus more on school. In five years I would like to have graduated from San Jose University. I want to be a counselor or therapist. I want to be a role model and impact my community. I really strongly believe that I can do that in the future and that’s what makes me want to keep going.

My most memorable experiences at the Corps were all of the staff and teachers.  I am more open about my learning disability now and feel comfortable asking questions when I need to. I am also more open to finding other people who are like me, so I can talk to them and feel more comfortable when I am outside of school.

I would also like to thank my son. He is the reason why I am doing all of this. When I get my masters I want him to be proud of me for pursuing my goals. Thank you.

Will

Failure is not an option.

Being at Civicorps has been a roller coaster to put it lightly. While on that roller coaster, I gained a lot. I got to travel places and see things that I had never been able to see before. I improved academically, like coming from barely being able to keep up in the math class when I first arrived, to assisting my teacher and teaching in Geometry Two class. I’ve impressed staff with my writing skills as well as my public speaking skills. One of the most important things I’ve gained is a new mindset where failure is not an option, where simply trying is not a goal, where success is the only option and outcome.

But just as with all roller coasters, with ups come the downs and with all that I’ve gained, I’ve also lost a lot. Specifically I’ve lost a lot of people, close family.… One loss in particular was more significant than the others. My younger brother, whose picture I’ve brought with me, passed away June 10, 2018. …After talking to a few family members I decided that I would dedicate graduating to my little brother who did not have the chance to do so, and I stand here today with my brother’s picture, smiling on the very day that he left this earth, proud of myself knowing that I fulfilled that promise I made.

I would like to thank everyone who helped me to fulfill that promise, family members, other Corpsmembers, as well as staff. I especially want to thank my children who gave me a reason to want more. Thank you.

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Climbing the Distance at Pinnacles National Park

Guest blog by David Jaeger

David Jaeger, one of Civicorps’ 2019-2020 Jesuit Volunteers, recounts a three-day camping trip with ten Corpsmembers at Pinnacles National Park.

We’re now almost two months into the COVID shelter-in-place in California. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to get out of the house for a few short hikes during this time, I’ve been reminded of how grateful I am for some of the excellent outdoors trips that Civicorps makes possible.

In March, ten Corps Members from our academy, job training center, and recycling team were able to join us on a three day trip to the breathtaking Pinnacles National Park. Not only did we have the chance to see caves, miles of open valley and many feisty racoons- on Sunday, but we were also able to try our hand at rock climbing.

David Jaeger with Corps Members at Pinnacle National Park.
David Jaeger with Corps Members at Pinnacle National Park.

Civicorps Members after the climb at Pinnacles National Park.
Civicorps Members after the climb at Pinnacles National Park.
On Friday, March 8, we piled ourselves into two vehicles and traveled south for a two hour trip. As per usual on Lauren’s trips: we began with an opening circle, tried our best to let go of the things that were stressing us out in our busy everyday “lifeworld” of Oakland, and then donned our alter aliases.

Quickly, we noticed that there were some early hangups for a few of us on this trip—our CMs had a lot weighing on their minds and hearts—and we weren’t exactly sure what the weekend would bring. Nevertheless, we came into the trip with an openness to whatever it would bring.

“We came into the trip with an openness to whatever it would bring.”

Our first part of the trek consisted of a short hike to the caves. As we squeezed through tight spaces and climbed stairs in the dark, we finally emerged to a view that overlooked the open valley, a great way to start the trip. At camp, JV Caleb and I cooked several packets of beef and veggie burgers, and most of us enjoyed socializing together along the campfire this evening.

Corps members hiking seven miles of rain at Pinnacles.
Seven miles of rainy hiking at Pinnacles.
Saturday, I think, was the most difficult day for me (but also very rewarding!), and undoubtedly for several of our group members. After limbering up with some group stretches, we undertook a long and rainy seven mile hike on the trails. From the get-go, we had some doubts about whether we would have the energy to make the entire hike, and we weren’t sure what the weather would bring us in the open trails. Roughly put, we had some vibrant and encouraging personalities who helped to balance out the “doubters” in our group, and this helped us all to persevere through all the ups and downs of this day.
Another highlight of this afternoon was making friends with the park rangers! If you have the time and opportunity, this is a location that is definitely worth a visit.

As we settled down for the second evening, we were visited by lots of frisky raccoons who attempted to take a seat in our van and enter into our food boxes.

It’s my hope and trust that everyone in our group would agree that Sunday was a great day for us. This day was the flip to daylight savings, but we had no problem waking up before the light of dawn and sharing some quiet company by the fire.

Civicorps Members hike at Pinnacles National Park.
Going from the frisky raccoons to the climb.

By 8 a.m., we were packed out of our campsite and met our climbing guides at the entrance of the park. One of our guides brought her newborn baby along with her partner on the trip! They were adorable.

Corps members rock climbing at Pinnacles National Park.
Scaling the rock face at Pinnacles.

Corps Members with Park Rangers.

All of us, even the most reticent, tried at least once to make it to the top of the three-graded levels of rock wall that we faced. Those of us who doubted our abilities were quickly encouraged with verbal support (along with some good-natured joking, of course) from our fellow tripmates. At the end of the trip, our guides commented that they’d never had a group like us, and that we were one of the most enjoyable groups that they had ever taken out.

“Those of us who doubted our abilities were quickly encouraged with verbal support.”

With four or so hours at the rock face, we were all worn out, and we took a refreshing snack break before we said our last goodbyes to Pinnacles.

It’s difficult to put into words how much we all cherished this experience. By the end of the day, several new friendships had blossomed—many of the Corpsmembers were making plans to go to the movies together, and sharing stories and laughs as we drove back to Oakland. “When is the next trip?” was the constant refrain I heard among the attendees in the days after our return to school.

Corps Members after hiking and climbing at Pinnacles
Conquering new heights and ground.

Trips like these, I think, are some of the most beneficial life experiences that Civicorps provides to students. After all this “sheltering-in” passes, I have no doubt that the opportunity to go out again as a group into the trails will be all the more appreciated.

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Spotlight on our Jesuit Volunteers

Every August, Civicorps has the privilege of welcoming two new Jesuit Volunteers (JV’s) into our ranks for a full year of service.

As our new volunteers cycle in, we bid farewell to the two JV’s completing their year of service.  In August 2019, we had the pleasure of on-boarding two young men at the Academy and the Job Training Center: David Jaeger and Caleb Blagys.  In March 2020, Caleb made the difficult decision to return home to the East Coast to weather the COVID-19 pandemic with his family.  David made the equally hard decision to remain in Oakland through the conclusion of his service year this August.

You may not know what a Jesuit Volunteer is and what do they do at Civicorps. In appreciation of Caleb’s service, which was abruptly cut short, and continued gratitude for David’s service, we spoke with them both to learn more.

David Jaeger

David spoke to us from the back porch of his apartment in Berkeley where he is living with other Jesuit Volunteers in an intentional community during his service year. Before moving to the East Bay to join Civicorps, David studied philosophy and religious studies at Shawnee State University in Ohio and volunteered at a hospice.

We reached Caleb in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he is living with family after he ended his service. Caleb graduated from Fairfield University, near Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he grew up. He studied business management and marketing. During college, Caleb worked for the Fairfield Conservation Department, taught rugby skills to young students, and had an internship at Save-A-Suit, providing military veterans with business attire when they returned to the workforce.

What is a Jesuit Volunteer?

Caleb Blagys

DJ: The Jesuit Volunteer Corps was founded in Baltimore in 1975 to provide services to communities in need. Typically, Jesuit Volunteers (JVs) are recent college graduates who commit to the core values of communal living, simple living, spirituality, and social justice. JVs are placed throughout the US, in schools, hospitals, food pantries, and other social services. I was looking for things to do after graduation and I really wanted to live with people who had similar values.

CB: The Jesuit ideals and philosophies are what make it different. JV’s don’t get a paycheck. I lived in an intentional community with six other JVs [including David]. We talk to each other about our day, if we’ve had a tough day, figure out the chores around the house, and then also, how to kick back and relax in an intentional manner. The spiritual aspect is open to interpretation. Some people are Catholics, but there are also volunteers from other religions, atheists, and those who are exploring faith. I come from Catholic roots and a Jesuit education in high school and college.

What is your job at Civicorps? 

DJ: As the Service Learning Coordinator I help teachers and staff with math, English, and research tutoring, and everything from making copies to keeping the lobby clean to being a fieldtrip chaperone. I also help students find opportunities to complete their community service participation hours, and help to make sure the food pantry is stocked with nutritious snacks for our members.

CB: I ended up having the opportunity to gain experience being a Job Training Supervisor. In this role I worked with different departments (EBRPD, EBMUD, Alameda County Flood Control, and Caltrans). I would learn what they needed done and then relay that to my crew or with the other supervisors and make sure that we got the job done to their specifications.

Hardest Challenge:  

DJ: The Pandemic has been the hardest part of the year. I am trying to do my best to help in whatever small way I can.

CB: I have thought of myself as a good listener, but I wouldn’t always know what to say. I’ve learned you don’t need to say anything, but just be there and offer an ear. Sometimes that is all you can do, and that’s all you really need to do sometimes.

Most enjoyable thing(s):

DJ: Two of the most rewarding experiences that I have had were backpacking trips to Pinnacles National Park and Point Reyes with 10 Corpsmembers (CMs) each time. Look for David’s upcoming blog post on this trip!

CB: Going on a camping trip the weekend before I had to leave due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I went with CMs, David, and a staff member [Lauren Hoernig] to Pinnacles National Park. Being able to experience an extremely different environment where there’s no cell service, no cars, no lights, nothing but the people around you and the great outdoors was great. We went rock climbing. Some people were natural born rock climbers who flew up the cliff face. I was so fortunate to have been able to join them. The most challenging climb takes so much mental fortitude and persistence. And to know that I did that, but also that CMs were doing that and feeling that same sense of accomplishment was absolutely otherworldly.

Once your service ends in August, what’s next for you, David?

DJ: I’ve been accepted to the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. If things aren’t still closed in the fall, my goal is to study there for the next two years to get a master’s in philosophy.

Will you have to speak a foreign language?

DJ: The classes are in English, but it will be helpful to learn a little French, German, and Flemish.

Caleb, you made the difficult decision to leave your service in March when COVID-19 became quite serious in this country. All of us miss you. How have you been doing?

CB: I’m focusing on controlling what’s in my control and letting go of what I can’t control. Staying positive and putting one foot in front of the other. It’s important to me that wherever I end up working, they have a commitment to social responsibility and that they do their part to help others. I also want to thank the people who went on the Pinnacles camping trip and made it what it was, and to tell them to remember that experience now, in the midst of this crisis, and to know that good days like that are ahead of us also.

What’s one thing you’d tell the next Jesuit Volunteer?

DJ: Be ready to be uncomfortable. They will definitely face many uncertainties.

CB: Get your hands dirty right away and lead from the front. My guiding philosophy was I would never tell a CM to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.

What gives you hope? 

DJ: Knowing that there are people who are dedicating their lives to serving others. I’ve seen that at Civicorps. Seeing the perseverance of some human beings throughout this crisis and feeling a sense of deeper rootedness in life and in trusting life during these times.

CB: People’s willingness to listen to others. Openness to change and being a little less stubborn.

Favorite life motto/saying/experience?

DJ: “Do not be afraid.”

CB: One experience and saying that absolutely sticks out for me is from JAB [Joseph “JAB” Billingsley, Civicorps’ Senior Support Services Manager]. He would come into our weekly meeting and say, “Well, it was another beautiful day at the Corps yesterday.” Like JAB said, every day at Civicorps was a beautiful day, every single day. Even the days that were most challenging, were days that I learned something and turned into a beautiful day.

What’s one thing you would say about Caleb?

DJ: His desire to see others flourish was so apparent to me—not only did he care deeply for the lives of staff and CMs, but also for the larger community.

What’s one thing you would say about David?

CB: He is a fully-fledged philosopher in every sense of the word—super insightful and gets you to take on new perspectives—and he is an expert phenomenologist-in-training.

And, we’d like to say thank you for making a commitment to service learning after college, and for advancing our mission. You guys rock! We hope that your time with Civicorps has made a difference in your life and we wish you the best going forward. Keep in touch!

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A New Job He's Passionate About

Civicorps said farewell to a fantastic member of our family recently.  Sharif Ahmad started a new job, and we couldn’t be more thrilled!  During his time at Civicorps, this talented young man served as a Conservation Intern and an Operations Intern at our Job Training Center; earned the distinctions of Corpsmember of the Quarter (Spring 2019) and Hardest Hitter of the Month (February 2019); and completed his AmeriCorps Education Award.

Sharif is now a Fleet Machinist Trainee at Waste Management.  We already miss him, but we are incredibly proud of him as he takes this exciting new step on his professional path. Congrats, Sharif!!

We didn’t want Sharif to leave us without offering him major props, so we asked him a few parting questions to help tell his story.

Q: What were you doing before Civicorps?

A: I was a Conservation intern before I was an Operations Intern. Before Civicorps, I was working at Skiekh Shoes in Eastmont Mall ‘chasing fools out of the store!’ I heard about Civicorps through my Uncle Kenneth “Redd”, who is an Alumni.

Q: Tell me about the most important skills you acquired through your internship.

A: The most important skill I acquired through my internship was safety procedures/hazards. I also learned a lot about working with different types of people and situations. I learned how to work under a lot of adversity, and it taught me to be more critical with my decisions.

Q: How did you get your new job at Waste Management? Tell us what you’ll be doing.

A: I heard about it through Mo (Monique Williams, Job Training Coordinator) and Tarkan (Guldur, E-Waste Coordinator), who had heard about it from the Internship Boards. The position is Fleet Machinist Trainee, and they’re training me on how to maintenance & service the Waste Management Work Trucks. I’ve always loved cars and working on cars ever since I was a kid, and this position allows me to have a career in something I’m interested in and passionate about.

Sharif and Danny Swift, Job Training Supervisor

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

A: I see myself with good credit, investing money, and giving back to the community I came from. I see myself still working at Waste Management, and taking college courses working towards a degree.

Q: What would you say to other young people who are thinking about becoming Corpsmembers?

A: Do the work, don’t let the work do you. Get in, get out, and get ahead in life, because time ain’t waiting on nobody. And that’s with anything you do, or want to do.

Q: Bonus questions! 

Where’s your favorite place to eat in Oakland?

A: My Mama Mo’s food (shout out Monique Williams), because I don’t like to eat out much, but I love all her baking!

What’s your Superpower?

A: Jedi Power! I need that power to read minds & I need the power to think of something and it just materializes right in front of me!

Don’t be a stranger, Sharif!  Use your Jedi Power to know when it’s time to visit your Civicorps family.

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Backpacking and Camping in Point Reyes

By David Jaeger

Jesuit Volunteer, David Jaeger, had the opportunity to co-lead an outdoor trip with 8 Corpsmembers to Point Reyes National Seashore.

I will quickly admit that I am not the best driver in the world. After receiving this warning, six Corpsmembers confirmed my self-evaluation shortly after hopping into a van headed northwest from our West Oakland academy site. After a few rough turns out of the parking lot and onto the highway, the driving went much more smoothly, and about an hour later, we arrived at the Bear Valley Welcome Center (all in one piece, as we’d hoped). When on the trail, there is a Civicorps tradition of using “wilderness names.” So, after we stopped for a sandwich break, we swapped our ordinary names for new monikers, did some stretching, and had a short team ritual to take us away from the mindsets we normally inhabit and towards an attunement to the trails. Now prepared, we set off on an hour’s hike towards our camping spot in the coastal valley for what would be a short but memorable backpacking trip.

Our group of 8 Corpsmembers and 5 staff, pitched tents at our campsite by the trail and quickly trotted down to the beach path just in time to see the sun setting and giving way to a beautiful near-full-moon. Osa* and Socks* even (bravely and enthusiastically) fully immersed themselves in the frigid ocean before we made the short trek back to our campsite. As things would have it, the fire would be a bit tricky for us this weekend- two of our three camping stoves weren’t working well at all. Nevertheless, we were still able to enjoy our pot of spaghetti and cooked vegetables. After we had some warm food in our stomachs, we headed back to the beach to try our hands at making a bonfire.

Our second attempt at a fire was stubborn and meek at first, but with enough kindling and about half an hour of effort, we had a fire worthy of s’more-making and were more than warm enough to become engrossed in several games of Mafia. After the game, we began the proverbial campfire ghost stories and we were quickly engrossed in Ya-you’s* tales of haunted hotel rooms and stealthy campsite visitors, followed by Bread’s* first venture into story-telling improvisation (regrettably cut short). After a few hours of our bonfire circle, the flames died down and in the quiet night we slept, for the most part peacefully, until dawn.

All of us spent the next windy morning on the beach, where we enjoyed the feeling of ocean waves on our flesh, let our feet dig into the sand, and explored or reclined while taking in the view of the coast and open sky. As we walked back and neared our vans, someone in our group astutely pointed to a clearing in the woods- and lo, there was a group of six elk grazing in the distance. We would have loved to have spent many more hours in Point Reyes, for there were many trails and sights that we did not have the chance to tread, but perhaps in the future, Corpsmembers and staff will take another trip to explore its beauty.

Before heading out, we ate our lunch at a trailhead and as a group, we transitioned back into our everyday names and roles. In our closing circle, we noted that almost all of us appreciated the opportunity to get away from the hustle of the city, to learn more about each other’s histories, to reflect, and attune ourselves to life on the trail, if only for a day. So, don’t let our appearances fool you. Everyone on this trip, whether it was their first time camping or the 300th time, transformed in some way or another, immersed with a new appreciation for each other and with new insights into ourselves and to this vast world we find ourselves in.

*Wilderness Name

Tervell: Big Steak
Roderick: Bread
Autumn: Wildlife Autumn
Keyone: Devon
Damario: Birdbox
Anthony: Bucko
Rosalinda: Osa
Jesus: Oso

Lauren: Ya-you
Eli: Moth
David: Stinging Nettle
Carl: Socks
Danny: Lil Steak

P.S. The driving went much more smoothly on the way back to Oakland also, just so you know.

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MLK 25th Annual Day of Service

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Across the country, thousands of Americans participated in service activities on January 20 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the MLK Day of Service which celebrates Dr. King’s vision of empowering individuals, strengthening communities, bridging barriers, and creating solutions to social problems. This specific federal holiday is the only holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer and improve their communities.

Civicorps had the honor to volunteer alongside Oakland City Councilmember Noel Gallo’s District 5’s Fruitvale Bart Area. Together, Corpsmembers, Civicorps staff and alumni helped clean up the streets. We picked up loose plastic, old furniture, recyclables, and unexpected items like a toilet. Collectively, along with other organizations including Playworks, California Waste Solutions, and Peace Starts with Me, we picked up truckloads of trash, a united community serving Oakland.

“It meant a lot to me because as we were getting done, I could see the difference we made. The streets looked better. Knowing that young kids will be able to walk down these clean streets gives me hope for my 3 year old son’s future. He being there present to witness this community effort was impactful and I am grateful for it. Plus, it was MLK Day, honoring this black historical leader made me feel good and I know he would have been proud of us doing this act of service.” – Imani Allen, Corpsmember and AmeriCorps Recipient, Civicorps

I am glad that Civicorps has the opportunity to be part of these activities honoring the legacy of MLK’s commitment to making our communities better and more equitable.” – Tessa Nicholas, Executive Director, Civicorps

In addition, a Civicorps crew was at the MLK Shoreline helping East Bay Regional Park District control traffic during their annual celebration honoring Dr. King.

“I made sure folks felt welcomed as they entered the parking lot to honor Martin Luther King Jr. This celebration brought so many people together, I was just glad to be there helping out.” – Ta-Ron Giddens, Conservation Intern and AmeriCorps Recipient, Civicorps

Even though MLK’s legacy is nationally recognized on this day every year, we are presently committed to working throughout the year to make our streets better for our communities. We were pleased to discover that Councilmember Noel Gallo’s team leads weekly clean ups that honor the spirit of community and service! So if you would like to help out and dedicate your time to volunteering, reach out to Civicorps staff and together we can serve Oakland!

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