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.