Civicorps graduates are doing big things! Read the powerful stories of four alumni:
Withelma T Ortiz
I Am Resilient
A “little girl lost, confused, and at a dead end” is how Withelma “T” Ortiz Pettigrew describes herself before coming to Civicorps in 2007. Growing up in the foster care system, she was transferred between homes over 14 times throughout her childhood. When she spent her 17th birthday in Juvenile Hall, she realized that she needed to change the trajectory of her life.
“I went from all of that, to working in steel-toed boots and a hard hat. I had never even seen nature before Civicorps. Here I am in Yosemite, scared of spiders and camping outside, and I’m the only girl in the group climbing a huge waterfall.”
Years later, T would climb Huayna Picchu in Peru by herself - a demanding hike gaining 9,000 feet of elevation. She attributed this new sense of adventure to her experience at Civicorps.
“Before Civicorps, I was a little girl who thought I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t be anything, and then I came into an environment that understood young people who are what society considers ‘problem children’ and they accepted me and pushed me. So many times I was like ‘I can’t do this’ and my supervisors would be like ‘Yes you can, you’re stronger than this.’”
Civicorps staff helped connect T with opportunities like a Hip Hop Literacy program at Ohio State University where she began to picture college as a real possibility for herself.
“Civicorps was the first place where I got to see what I was capable of and it’s the first place where I got to develop my self-esteem and have exposure to activities that helped build on who I was as a person. It just made me hungrier for more of that.”
T is now a 4.0 college student majoring in Strategic Communications at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She is also a social justice advocate who speaks on behalf of foster youth and victims of sex trafficking. T has testified in front of Congress and she continues to speak on panels across the US related to these issues.
Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People behind President Barack Obama, and one of Glamour Magazine’s 2011 Women of the Year, T has spent the last decade serving as a voice for so many who have had theirs silenced.
“Embrace everything you learn here,” T says to current youth at Civicorps, We all have failures and downfalls but realize that it’s not how you fall, but how you pick yourself up and keep going that is most important.”
I Am Driven
Sitting atop one of the East Bay Parks’ many rolling hills during his work breaks, Phil would often look out over the horizon and reflect on how far he had come in such a short span of time.
Like so many young men in Oakland, Phil grew up without an exact roadmap for how he would achieve his dream: to buy a home and to provide for his family. He didn’t know how to get there, so he experimented with methods that ended up costing him his freedom.
“I realized that my actions were taking me further away from my dreams rather than bringing me closer to them,” Phil said. He was determined not to make the same mistakes again and when a friend told him that he could get a second chance at Civicorps, he called to enroll.
Phil saw Civicorps as the perfect launch pad to get him moving toward his dreams. “I was surrounded by a lot of people with the same goals I had. People at Civicorps were in the process of finding themselves and trying to make positive changes in their lives.”
During his time at Civicorps, Phil stacked up as many tool certifications and credentials as possible. Before he knew it, he was a Crew Leader. Later on, he obtained his Class B driver’s license and became a truck driver for Civicorps Recycling. Because of his leadership skills, he was promoted to a Supervisor for Civicorps’ Job Training Center. With each promotion, he was already looking two steps ahead to determine how he could continue to grow.
Following Civicorps, Phil landed a job with the Oakland Public Works Agency as a Heavy Equipment Operator. He is a first responder in the event of mudslides, and he is part of a team that works their way around Oakland, paving potholes and assisting with homeless encampment cleanup.
“It feels like I’m doing a service for the community by cleaning up the debris and repaving streets around Oakland. I used to play on these streets as a kid and the work I do now feels like something positive I’m giving back to the community,” says Phil.
In 2017, Phil signed the papers on his new home, making his longtime dream a reality.
“I remember that Civicorps had us do a 5-year plan in class and buying a home was a big one on my list. It took a little bit more than 5 years, but hey, I made it to see that dream finally come true!”
I Am Fearless
The first day of college classes for most freshmen is an exciting, anxiety-inducing time. Students are leaving their families, often for the first time, and moving into adulthood. Imagine going through this transition, not only as the first person in your family to attend a four-year college, but also as a full-time mom with an infant in tow.
None of this fazes Katelyn, who is already planning which student associations she’s going to join at Mills College in the fall (Photography!) and deciding what her major and minor are going to be (Child Development and Art). “I feel like this is an exciting new beginning for me and my son,” she says.
When Katelyn was in high school, a conflict with a teacher made her want to avoid school. As a result, she dropped out, but eventually heard about Civicorps through a friend. In the process of working toward her diploma, Katelyn received the news that she would be having a baby.
“At Civicorps, I found one-on-one support from the counselors and teachers that helped me throughout my pregnancy,” Katelyn says, “but even more than that, they helped me to find my inner scholar and to fall in love with school again.”
As Katelyn earned awards for her academic and work performance, including graduating as an honor society student, the possibility of enrolling in college started to seem more real.
She still wasn’t sure how college would be feasible for a new mom without much financial support, but staff at Civicorps’ College and Career Center encouraged her to check out an open house at Mills College.
“At the open house I learned more about the college and I realized it was everything I wanted - and that it would be possible for me to attend and take care of my son at the same time. So I said ‘okay this is it, I’ve got to apply.’”
Not only was Katelyn was accepted, but she was also given the highest financial aid package available as well as a two bedroom apartment on campus, close to her classes and to her baby.
“To others who are thinking about college, I would say ‘don’t hesitate to put yourself out there.’ If you have even an ounce of ‘maybe’ then you definitely can do it.”
As she begins this new chapter as a full-time college student, she doesn’t worry about her fears holding her back, she’s letting her dreams push her forward.
I Am Unstoppable
For someone who took pride in being able to help his family financially, when Alan’s back went out due to a work injury, his whole life changed. During the months that he was waiting for recovery, Alan realized that he might not be able to rely on manual work anymore and he was going to need his high school diploma.
A friend told him about Civicorps and after his surgery, he decided to apply. His feelings about school changed once he got to Civicorps. He found an environment where teachers and staff recognized his brilliance and connected him with opportunities to shine.
“I had dropped out of high school because it felt like nobody cared about whether I learned or not, but at Civicorps, staff went above and beyond. They knew who I was and I felt that they wanted to see me succeed.”
Civicorps staff continuously modified the program to fit Alan’s needs and were able to connect him with paid internship opportunities where he could gain professional skills while his back healed. Once he completed his internship, Civicorps’ Career Counselor encouraged him to apply for a full-time coordinator position at Kapstone Paper - and he got the job!
“I enjoy what I do. It’s fast-paced and I like that we are helping out small businesses in Oakland by making sure their branding shines. This job also introduced me to computer graphics - a field that I never would have known about that I now want to study in college.”
Although his original plans to become a mechanical engineer may have changed due to unexpected events in his life, Alan has no regrets and loves the trajectory he’s on.
“This experience taught me that if I get a bump in the road, to find a way to go around it, swerve, and keep pushing forward. Thankfully, Civicorps gave me the chance to find a different path.”