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At age 18, Rey Pinola was in a pretty bad spot: no job, no high school degree, out on probation after pleading guilty to a felony.

"I really found out how hard it is not to have an education, a paper, and then to have a felony conviction;" he recalled this week, sitting in the Cotati offices of Conservation Corps North Bay. "It was really hard. I was looking for jobs nonstop, applying everywhere. Right when I was about to give up, I was hired here."

Today, almost a year after walking through the Conservation Corps doors, Pinola has his high school diploma, he has a steady job through the corps, and he's started classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, hoping to become a professional fitness expert.

"When I came here, they helped me focus ... helped me see what I wanted besides just the high school diploma, to pass that, into a career," he said

Pinola is one of 100 or so young people employed through Conservation Corps North Bay, a 31-year-old nonprofit that combines education and work opportunities for young people, ages 18 to 25, who find themselves in need of help as they make the transition between school and the rest of life.

"Something happened in their lives that took them off track and they don't know how to get back on track," said CEO Marilee Eckert. "That's kind of our specialty."

The organization began in Marin County, but expanded to Sonoma County in 2008.

For those who have not finished high school, the organization offers classes under the aegis of the statewide John Muir Charter School, created to serve youth this and other conservation corps around the state. Students can earn their GED and even complete a regular high school diploma.

Meanwhile, the participants work, and work hard. The Conservation Corps contracts with various local business and agencies, primarily on environmental cleanup and restoration projects. Corps crews have worked for clients including Caltrans, the Sonoma County Water Agency, and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, cleaning trash, clearing brush, maintaining trails, and restoring habitat.

The crews receive training in using and maintaining heavy equipment, including chainsaws, so they are well equipped to conduct major clean up programs. Water agency General Manager Grant Davis said the young crews are professional, well-led and well-equipped. The workers can carry these skills into lucrative careers, including several who have been hired by the water agency after they left the corps.

"I have seen them literally turn lives around," said Davis, who sits on the nonprofit's advisory board.

The crews also build and maintain a string of recycling containers at parks, beaches, and public spaces throughout the region. Earlier this month, the crews collected more than 10,000 of recycled containers at a Sonoma Raceway event, a mountain of containers that took days to sort out and process.

The organization "does awesome work; the whole public benefit they bring to it, educating kids to get their degrees, you've got to love that," said Bill Keene, general manager of the open space district.

Workers are employed, trained, and paid by the Conservation Corps, earning $9 per hour, a dollar over the minimum wage. Students still working on their high school diploma work 32 hours per week over four days, then spend one other day at their studies. Older workers, many of them attending Santa Rosa Junior College or College of Marin part time, work a regular work week.

Environmental cleanup and restoration is "a good way of keeping focused because you know there is an end to the project," said Hazel Hoyt, 19, of Rohnert Park, who has been doing stream maintenance work for water agency projects. "It's nice to look back and see the change that's been made, also knowing that you're affecting the future of that creek or the environment."

Hoyt said she had struggled in high school and was far short of graduating going into her senior year. She confessed to a teacher that she felt lost and directionless, and he recommended the Conservation Corps.

The small classes and supportive atmosphere "really gives people a chance to get to know each other; it's not so fast paced" as regular high school, she said. "And being a work place, you get to know your coworkers. You can empathize because you know we're all going through the same hardships."

A year after entering the program, Hoyt is finished with her high school degree and is taking classes at SRJC, hoping to break into the health care field.

Her colleague Adam Erickson said he too was lost in high school, with no chance to graduate and stuck working a series menial construction jobs. He had hoped to go into the military, but recruiters wouldn't take him without a diploma. In the two years since he joined the program, he has graduated, started classes at SRJC, and banked up scholarship money to attend a police academy to get into law enforcement.

"Everyone here has been so supportive, but all the goals I have picked out and accomplished were because I wanted it," he said. "I am never going to forget the life lessons I learned here."

The program doesn't work for everyone, corps Education Director Terence Desborough. About 20 percent of people who enter drop out within three months.

"Some people aren't ready to be helped for various reasons," he said. "It could be their personal circumstances; it could be substance abuse."

And some people just aren't ready for the reality of work.

"This is a very stringent program. They work hard they have to be here at 7; they finish at 3:30 every day," he said. "Sometimes after that they have education after they are done with work."

There are no precise statistics on how many that start the program finish successfully, though Eckert said that the 80 percent that make it through the first three months "have a very good chance" of making it out with a degree and good work experience. The nonprofit is studying ways to track their graduates more precisely, she said.

The program has grown in recent decades from about $1 million per year to around $7 million, as its work programs have expanded. Some of the funding comes from donors, some from grants, but much comes from the cleanup contracts with organizations such as the water agency.

The main limitation on the size of the program is the funding to pay the salaries for the work experience.

"If they could take 10 times more, they would be out there" to be helped, said former Supervisor Mike Reilly, who encouraged the corps to expand to Sonoma County and now sits on its advisory board.

Interviewing students at the Cotati center this week, the stories of how they came to the program varied widely, from trouble with the law, to troubled families, to simple boredom and alienation in the conventional school system. The students appeared to cover a broad range of social and ethnic backgrounds.

All, however, told a common story: that the corps had helped the focus academically, professionally, and personally.

"I was so excited to get the job; everyone around here is so cool," said Jermaine Hampton, 19, of Rohnert Park. "They talk to me like I am an actual person, not just some kid. That's what I really like about this program."

Unlike most participants in the program, Hampton had finished high school by the time he entered, but he came for the work experience and to take advantage of the post-graduation support the program provides for students entering college. He too is taking classes at SRJC, hoping to study computer science.

And where would Rey Pinola, the student struggling to overcome a felony on his record, be now without the program. He laughs and shakes his head.

"Probably back in jail, or maybe worse," he said. "This place really helped me change my life around.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)