.Dirt Diva: Mother Earth’s star students

Conservation Corps North Bay turns young people into environmental stewards

by Annie Spiegelman

A few months ago I was at a family reunion with many of my highly educated relatives. The conversation turned to the California drought. Many of the participants seemed surprised by the depressing news. I was surprised, too. Not by the drought statistics and the latest water restrictions, but that this group of intellectuals was so surprised that we were in a drought. I didn’t join in the conversation. I just stewed in my bitterness. Didn’t I send them all photos of my front lawn being removed and replaced with drought-tolerant plants 10 years ago, warning them that the weather was changing? Maybe that’s just the American way; don’t fix it till it’s broken beyond repair. Then, freak out.

Or, maybe it’s because they are not gardeners. Gardeners and farmers work side by side with Mother Earth. We hear her voice in our heads. She says that if we continue to waste our natural resources and pollute our environment, we’ll fail to maintain an ecological balance. And that’s when bad things happen: Drought, erosion, floods, climate change. Apparently, she’s not big on forgiveness. His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, in his book The Elements of Organic Gardening, writes, “Our descendants are highly unlikely to thank us if it’s ultimately found that we have indeed been guilty of treating nature merely as a laboratory and not as a vast, integrated, living organism.”

We literally hold our children’s future in our hands. But what if those kids are tired of waiting for us? And what if they hashtag us “#environmentalslackersgohome”? That’s where Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB) comes in to save the day.

Founded in 1983, Conservation Corps North Bay is the oldest youth conservation corps in the country. Serving Marin and Sonoma counties from facilities in Cotati, Novato and San Rafael, this remarkable environmental nonprofit has helped nearly 10,000 young men and women break the cycle of poverty through education and job skills, while serving the environment and community. Many of these youth have experienced challenges in completing high school. The program leads to completion of a high school diploma through an educational partnership with John Muir Charter School, while also supplying kids with a paid job and skill certifications.

“I’m passionate about what we are doing for the environment and also for the lives we are getting back on track,” says CCNB CEO Marilee Eckert. “It is so amazing to have a job that has such a huge impact on the things that matter most—the future of young lives and the health of the planet.”

Currently, CCNB serves around 400 disadvantaged youth annually. Just what do these teens and young adults do? Oh, so many noble things!

They cultivate real food: The young people learn how to grow edible and ornamental crops at the Indian Valley Organic Garden and Farm, which is managed by CCNB along with its partners College of Marin, UC Cooperative Extension-Marin, Marin Master Gardeners and The Cultural Conservancy. At the farm, they maintain the garden infrastructure and complete local watershed and creek restoration projects.

Thirteen corps members served on CCNB’s farm crew while attending College of Marin, earning AmeriCorps education awards of almost $11,000 to use in furthering their education. Around 2,100 pounds of fresh produce were gleaned and provided to underserved youth and adults; an additional 150 pounds of produce were provided to the Novato Unified School District.

Have you been to the farm? If not, what are you waiting for? It’s beautiful, magical and inspiring! (You, too, will hear Mother Earth whispering in your ear, telling you to turn off your lawn sprinkler and stop watering the sidewalk!)

They learn how to recycle: In partnership with land management agencies, local governments and county businesses, corps members provide recycling services all around the county. You may have seen them at the Marin County Fair over the last few years. The corps crew was led by Jennie Pardi in 2014, and the fair reached a zero-waste diversion rate of 94 percent. Because of the hard work of the young corps members, the Marin County Fair was named the Greenest County Fair on Earth.

Conservation Corps North Bay staff and corps members collected and sorted 4,369 pounds of recycling at 100 recycling bins and Eco-Stations located throughout the fair. Materials included glass, aluminum, high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or plastic #2) polyethylene terephthalate (PET or plastic #1), paper, mixed plastic and cardboard.

They learn about land management: Corps members work with land management agencies and environmental organizations to help build and maintain trails, restore habitats, clear fire breaks and prevent flooding.

The milestone of 2014? They helped maintain 29,936 feet of trails, and installed 1,529 feet of new trails, 252 stairs, three switchbacks, 20 feet of bridges and 1,129 feet of fencing for safe public access to our breathtaking public lands.

OK—I’m now going to make you weep. Grab the (recycled, compostable) box of tissues. Dominick, a corps member, recently wrote a letter thanking donors for supporting him on his path. “This program, if you were unaware, provides young adults with an opportunity to get their high school diploma, help save the environment and most importantly, it lets us know that the world hasn’t given up on us.”

How you can help Conservation Corps North Bay:

  1. Buy fresh, delicious produce and gorgeous plants, seeds or fruit trees from the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden. For more information, call 415/883.2211 (ext. 8200) or visit marin/edu.
  2. Visit conservationcorpsnorthbay.org to learn more about the work, and spread the word about it.
  3. Having your own wild shindig? Contact the corps crew (415/454-4554) to see how they can partner with you in your recycling efforts.

4. Become a donor. Take a tour and see the crew in action. Marilee Eckert will personally show you around. Contact her at [email protected]


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