When John Whipple, WCCC Field Coordinator, first contacted me about providing him with some history and background information about the Corps operated by the Mesa Co. Partners Program, I jumped at the chance to share my thoughts and memories. I have always believed it is important for an organization to know and appreciate its own history and its relationship with other organizations.
As the former Director of the Partners Program from 1981 to 2015, I hope to write several blogs over the next few months sharing my own recollection about the Corps humble beginnings and the process that created the Western Colorado Conservation Corps of today, that is an accredited and certified member of the Colorado Youth Corps Association and the National Corps Network.
To understand how the Corps came to be, first one must understand the Mesa Co. Partners Program and its vision. When we started talking about a Corps in Mesa County, some folks were not sure that Partners should be the sponsor since Corps typically enroll young adults 16 to 25 years of age. Would a Corps take Partners away from its core mission? However, others felt Partners was the right organization since Partners had been putting youth to work through its Restitution and Community Service Work Programs since 1980. There was already a relationship with several public land organizations that was a good starting point.
As determined by the Partners Board of Directors in the 1980’s, the Mission of Mesa Co. Partners was to make a difference in the lives of young people by helping them develop a positive self-image, a sense of belonging and an acceptance of responsibility for their actions. When this mission statement was developed, Partners was providing two major components: 1. One to One Mentoring Services for youth 7 to 17 years of age who were referred by other youth serving agencies; and 2. the Restitution/Community Service Work Program that supervised juvenile offenders referred by the court system and District Attorney’s Office to perform community service hours and earn stipends to pay restitution to their victims.
The concept of providing positive role models and “Big Brothers/Big Sisters” to youth from high risk environments was nothing new in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the 1990’s there were numerous delinquency, substance abuse, and school dropout prevention research studies that stated that any child may be able to overcome any and all obstacles in their way as they grow up if they have just one stable, supportive adult in their life. The Partners Mentoring Program is certainly built on this concept of one adult providing acceptance, friendship and positive role modeling to a child. “Risk Focused Prevention” and “Assets for Youth” were popular theories that recommended mentoring, employment and community service as tools effective in reducing delinquency, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and school dropouts.
When the Partners Board of Directors started seriously discussing the possibility of creating a Conservation Corps in 1998, the Board determined that the Corps would fit into the mentoring concept. The Corps staff and crew supervisors would clearly provide mentoring and teaching opportunities. The public land managers who sponsor work projects also would provide mentoring and educational opportunities for the youth.
The research done on the Partners Mentoring Program by the State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division and Omni Research in the 1980--90’s discovered that youth with mentors improved their self esteem, improved their sense of belonging, improved their sense of significance and accomplishment and improved their locus of control (feeling like they are in control of their lives). Certainly these outcomes are also desirable and relevant to Corps members. In 2006, the Colorado Youth Corps Association contracted with Omni Research to conduct research on the existing Corps in Colorado including WCCC. The Omni Evaluation of Corps found the similar outcomes for Corps members as those for youth with mentors—they feel better about themselves and more in control of their behaviors and their future. When Corps members learn new skills (chain saw certification) or accomplish a task (build a new trail), their self esteem and sense of accomplishment increases. When Corps members work as a team to finish a work project, they develop a sense of belonging.
So you can see that the goals of the Corps are very similar to the Mentoring Program—helping young people become strong, independent and productive members of society. Next time I will discuss how the Partners Restitution/Community Service Work Program added to the momentum to start the Conservation Corps.