Throughout the year, young members of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps beautify the city — cleaning and planting trees, and creating trails and green spaces in the city. They get a break at the holidays to share holiday cheer. 

“We all come together to have fun,” says Corps member Chrishana Cameron, 21, who was enjoying the festivities at one of the Corps’ job sites. “It’s not always about work,” she said of the holiday celebration. 

Some members bring their young children. Others bring parents, brothers and sisters, and the youngsters all receive presents from Santa Claus.

The nonprofit organization helps young people at risk, says staff member Alex Lopez, a senior program director who once belonged to a street gang and served five years in prison.

“I made a mistake,” he says, “but I use that as a tool to reach out to the young people and let them know that I’ve been there, done that.” 

Lopez joined the Corps in 1991.  He was later hired to a staff job and became a supervisor. 

“Whatever they’re going through,” he says of the young recruits, “I use my experience to lead them in the right direction.”

The program combines job training and education.  “I dropped out of high school,” recalls staff member Denise Haynes, who grew up in the Watts neighborhood. I made some bad choices in my life, but I didn’t know you can turn all those things around.”  After joining the Corps in 1997, she completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

The LA Conservation Corps was founded in 1986 by Mickey Kantor, a Los Angeles lawyer who would later serve as U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton.  Modeled on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, it is one of many groups that offer job training and a second chance to 26,000 young people around the United States.

There are many kinds of youth corps, says Jimmie Cho, LA Conservation Corps board chairman. Some focus on the city, and others on rural regions. Cho says “it’s really all about service and working to invest in other people.”

Corps members in Los Angeles say the work is hard but rewarding, and the holidays are a time to celebrate their accomplishments with co-workers and family.

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