Civicorps Corpsmembers and graduates are doing big things! Read the powerful stories of current Corpsmembers and alumni:
I am a stronger individual!
"The grass isn't greener on the other side," counsels Civicorps graduate Aaron Chanthavong. "It's greener where you water it."
Today, Aaron is enjoying the fruits of his hard work. He was recently promoted from intern to full-time staff at Tech Exchange, a nonprofit that provides digital equity to underserved Bay Area families and one of Civicorps' key internship partners. He is excelling at Merritt College, where he is pursuing a degree in cyber security. He even makes time to volunteer by serving on the advisory board for DeAnza High School Tech Academy. Yet, only two years ago, Aaron's ambition lay fallow as he worked dead-end jobs and wondered how he could pursue his dream of embarking on a career that would enable him to help his mother support the family.
In 2017, Aaron made the bold decision to advance his education at Civicorps. He chose Civicorps because it not only offered a high school diploma, rather than a GED or other equivalency, but it also offered intensive job training and robust wraparound services.
At first, Aaron felt like the odds were against him. "I dropped out of high school at age 16. It was a 5 year gap before I returned to school," he says. "Growing up in a low-income family, none of my siblings made it past high school, so I thought high school was not the solution for me." Yet, at Civicorps, Aaron found support, encouragement, and, most importantly, staff who believed he could achieve ambitious goals.
Aaron's diligence, talent, and dedication to his goals made him a stand-out student at Civicorps. Aaron took full advantage of Civicorps' array of services, and he especially credits his science classes for inspiring him to pursue a career in technology. His hard work paid off, and he graduated with honors in December 2018, after only a year in the program, the shortest time possible for students to earn their diploma.
Reflecting the impact of his time at Civicorps, Aaron says, “I became a stronger individual and they helped me see greater potential in myself.”
I own my leadership!
At Civicorps, Earnisha Thornton has developed more than job skills--she has become a leader. Her hard work in our Job Training program earned a promotion to Crew Leader, a position that allows her to manage and mentor her peers.
“I guide people in the right direction and make sure everybody is on task,” Earnisha says. “If my supervisor walks away, I am in charge of the whole crew and am happy that I own this type of leadership. It’s really allowed me to be seen in a positive way.”
Before Civicorps, Earnisha had experienced instability in her education. In the high tech, social media-savvy Bay Area, she heard about Civicorps the way most of our students discover us—through old-fashioned word-of-mouth. She has thrived in our program, and is on track to graduate in December 2019. Earnisha credits the dedication of our staff for helping her succeed in our challenging program.
“What I most appreciate about Civicorps is the help,” she says. “Staff has been very persistent in ensuring I am passing my classes.”
Enoc Peraza Garcia
I will reach my goals!
For Enoc Peraza Garcia, Civicorps has offered a rare chance to earn an income, gain job skills, and complete his high school diploma, all in one program. It's an opportunity he's willing to travel for.
Like a growing number of students, Enoc commutes from outside Oakland, which costs precious time and money. Civicorps addresses the needs of commuting students like Enoc by providing passes for public transit, emergency funds for gas, and even a place to shower. As more and more youth face displacement, we find that transportation support is critical to helping students succeed in our program.
Enoc believes the community he has found at Civicorps is well-worth the journey. He plans to graduate in December and aims to launch a career in real estate.
“It’s given me an option where I can feel comfortable and safe while working towards a better goal,” he says. “I’m able to pursue something that interests me, and I can be assured that I will get to my goal. I feel secure here.”
I feel powerful!
I'eishia has completed many of the goals she set for herself. She earned her high school diploma from Civicorps in 2013, racking up awards from the Academy and Job Training Center along the way. She became an intern with the Oakland Housing Authority, one of Civicorps' longtime internship partners. At the age of 23, she earned her driver's license, with Civicorps staff supporting her every step of the way. Once she had her license, the Oakland Housing Authority hired her full-time as a groundskeeper, a stable job that pays a living wage and offers opportunities for advancement.
At Civicorps, I'eishia found many opportunities to challenge herself as well as dedicated staff who supported her and cheered her on. In 2014, she traveled with Sr. Support Services Manager Joseph Billingsley (JAB) to Dayton, OH to present at the Kettering Foundation's Alternative Institutions Working With Young Adults Research Exchange. I'eishia and JAB joined representatives from organizations throughout the U.S. to participate in a discussion about how to help youth become empowered and engaged citizens of their communities.
"I told them about Civicorps and shared my experience," I'eishia recalls. "The other presenters were intrigued by the program and wanted to know where we were at. Presenting at the Kettering Foundation was one of the highlights of my time at Civicorps because it helped me speak up. The experience expanded my mind."
I'eishia may have achieved many of her goals, but she continues to dream big. Inspired by her experience at the Kettering Foundation, she now has her sights set on becoming a motivational speaker and using her powerful voice in service of youth from underserved backgrounds.
"There are so many people that don’t see the potential in themselves," she says. "I want to give back to my community and to young people who felt what I felt. Show them that there is someone out there like them who is trying to make it."
"Because," she says. "Now I feel powerful."
I took charge of my education!
Civicorps isn't just a school--it's a community. Our community has been the inspiration Jesus Fernandez needed to pursue his goals.
When Jesus left high school in 10th grade, district staff told him Civicorps was an option for completing his diploma. At first, Jesus had doubts that the program was right for him, but Civicorps’ caring and committed staff soon won him over.
“When I first came to orientation I felt I would only be here for a couple of weeks,” he says. “But once I got along with other students and staff, I felt like this was a safe space. The support is everywhere. Students really are important to the staff.”
Civicorps' close and nurturing community has empowered Jesus to find his voice and take charge of his education.
“I have become more independent and comfortable asking questions,” he says. “Before I wouldn’t even raise my voice. I trust my teachers to get help, and they give it to me. It’s allowed me to really learn the material and be more confident.”
I FOUND my power
Growing up, Kiara had a dream for her future: a husband, children, her own home, financial security, and even a Yorkie named Sweet Pea. Unfortunately, the public school system put a damper on her dream, and one of her teachers even told her, “If your parents are poor, then you’ll be poor, too.”
Still, Kiara persevered, but she struggled to find a career that fulfilled her. She tried childcare, food service, and clerical work, but none of these fields sparked her passion. But as a new mom who had recently lost her job, the pressure was on to find work that was meaningful and put food on the table. Heeding her mother’s advice that sometimes she would have to get her hands dirty, Kiara joined Civicorps as a Recycling Intern.
“Listening to my mother’s words and taking a chance on myself, I was able to turn my whole life around,” Kiara says.
Kiara performed a variety of jobs related to waste management—sorting on the recycling line, helping on the waste collection trucks—and worked her way from the bottom up. Her hard work and determination have made her succeed in a male-dominated industry. In 2018, Kiara achieved two major milestones: she became one of the Corps Network’s Corpsmembers of the Year, and she became an apprentice at Waste Management, where she is one of only five women driving trucks at the company’s Alameda County facilities.
As she skillfully navigates her 23,000 lb. recycling truck through the community, Kiara radiates success – inspiring other women to enter the male-dominated field. In two years, she will become a Teamster truck driver, earning a starting salary of $75,000 a year plus pension. She looks forward to being able to support her family and give back to the community.
“I have hopes of one day opening a community center to refocus the minds of the youth, spread love, and motivate greatness,” she shares. “As for my family and me, our dream home – the dream home that almost never was- will be paid for, as will a good education for both my children. Thanks to Civicorps I am happy to say that I will now be able to give my children the life I didn’t have growing up.”
I FOUND my passion
Its summertime and Mike is enjoying his break before finishing his last semester at Merritt College. In between helping friends and family—he has a passion for serving others—he’s reading The Obstacle is the Way, a book on overcoming adversities.
Mike isn’t new to adversities. They are inevitable, but he knows the difficulties he’s encountered do not determine his will to succeed. Mike is focused, goal-oriented, and lets no distractions get in the way of accomplishing his dream of one day serving his community.
While at Civicorps, Mike excelled in his classes. “I was determined to show everyone that I could take the same classes as everyone and pass! I finished the program in 8 months,” says Mike proudly. That’s the fastest possible amount of time anyone can move through the Civicorps program.
After graduating from Civicorps, Mike pursued college, where he has continued to excel. “Now I have a 3.6 GPA – As and Bs in my college classes! My time at Civicorps helped me see my love to learn and excel in academics,” shares Mike.
Mike’s college experience has rekindled a lifelong dream. “I’ve always wanted to join the military. As a teenager I was doing a lot of bad things which prevented me from pursuing this dream,” he shares. But once he started focusing on himself and received his high school diploma from Civicorps, he was able to continue to pursue this dream. “When I enrolled at community college, I got interested once again in the military. It’s the experience of serving that captures my attention.”
The great thing about his chosen career path is that he understands that he has choices. If the military does not work out, Mike will enroll at CSU East Bay and study Criminal Justice Administration. Regardless of the outcome, he will find a way to serve his community.
Through his desire to improve himself, he has changed and become a better person. Not just for him, but for his community. In December 2018, Mike will walk the stage and receive his Associates degree from Merritt College.
Reflecting on his time in Civicorps and college, Mike says, “I completely challenged myself by staying focused on my education. I had goals. I didn’t know what my future would be like but I had goals and that was the driving factor. I know what I want to do and I will get there!”
I FOUND my career
Finding a career path can take years to discover. For many, going to college will help determine that choice. At Civicorps, we introduce students to various career pathways that help guide Corpsmembers’ path to a family-sustaining job. We provide opportunities for Corpsmembers to network with potential employers, guide them as they apply to vocational and community colleges, and help them explore career opportunities in healthcare, technology, social services, the arts and so much more.
Like so many young people discovering their way, Roxanna didn’t know what she would do after obtaining her high school diploma. So a couple months before graduation, she participated in Civicorps’ annual Career Fair, where she learned about Unitek College. “I was able to start a medical assistant program that allowed me to graduate in 9 months,” she says. Within a year, Roxanna was able to rise to the challenge of medical assisting, and had a job lined up in a pediatric unit a week after receiving her certificate.
On a typical day, Roxanna performs a variety of duties related to pediatric care. She takes vitals, performs injections, and soothes nervous parents. “I see babies grow and develop their motor skills, which became even more special when I became a mother,” she says. Roxanna just had her baby boy in March 2018. “This is such a new chapter to me. It’s been difficult juggling being a mom and still pursuing my medical assistant career,” she says. “But I know that I want to continue to grow. I plan to go back to school for a Licensed Vocational Nurse certificate.” Her end goal is to become a nurse practitioner.
“Graduating from Civicorps I was able to start my career, I was given an opportunity to go back to school, earn AmeriCorps scholarships, and fully achieve my potential. I truly became independent, was driven to work hard and seek the value my work ethic can accomplish,” says Roxanna.
“In moments when you feel like nothing is going your way, trust your network. Civicorps was there for me.” Roxanna says to current Civicorps youth, “if I could succeed, you can too!”
I FOUND my strength
It wasn’t that long ago when Yvonne would wake up in a cold and abandoned home with her family. Now she wakes up every morning, her 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter beaming joy, comfortable in a warm home. Her family’s safety and security motivates Yvonne to keep moving forward and pursuing her goals.
As a teenager, Yvonne’s life took an unexpected detour. In one hand she had an acceptance letter to CSU East Bay, and in the other, a positive pregnancy test. In the moment, she knew she wanted to be a mother, and knew that school would always be there. However, being a young parent came with its own unique and intense challenges.
Yvonne shares, “In the beginning my husband and I struggled. Together we were homeless, squatting in a foreclosed home for 6 months. During this time, there was mold and no heating which caused my son to catch pneumonia. Seeing him in the hospital for two weeks was soul-crushing and I knew things needed to change. So I enrolled at Civicorps.”
In spite of the adversity she faced, Yvonne knew that in order to overcome obstacles, she needed to strap on those boots and get to work. When she advanced to Civicorps’ Job Training Center, she learned the potential of her own work ethic. “Working in the field allowed me to understand responsibility and leadership. As girly as I am, it truly opened my mind about my craving for success.” Yvonne learned about responsibility and punctuality. She was winning awards from Hardest Hitter to Most Improved. Eventually she was promoted to Crew Leader, managing other Corpsmembers, a feat that she never thought she could achieve.
Yvonne knew she had it in her to accomplish more, so when she graduated from Civicorps, she applied for an internship at the Oakland Housing Authority, and internship partner Civicorps has had for over 10 years. Once her internship ended, Yvonne began working with Alameda Social Services Department. She developed a skilled administrative background that earned her a full-time position with the Oakland Housing Authority as an Office Specialist.
Her baby daughter is still young, but she can’t wait for the day that she once again receives that acceptance letter to CSU East Bay, where she hopes to graduate with a Masters of Social Work.
“Civicorps gave me opportunities to change my life. I didn’t know what to expect, but I learned to have an open mind and challenge myself to unleash my potential.”
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.”