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Los Angeles Conservation Corps Offers New Beginnings

There was a time when the Los Angeles River represented all that was grimy and gritty about this city. Here, gray concrete filled with an assortment of trash collected from the city of Angeles, eventually making their way out to sea, bobbing aimlessly. But that time is drawing to a close. With a hotly anticipated restoration program making its way through approvals, and a number of projects designed to draw residents to the river, Angelenos are finally coming to see the river in a new light. 

The same could be said of 21-year-old Alexander Salguero, member of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC). Tuesday through Saturday, Salguero can be found wading into the waters of the Los Angeles River from Atwater Village to Lincoln Heights. Wearing a hard hat, a reflective vest, and steel-toed boots, Salguero is one of five River Corpsmembers plucking out invasive plants, picking up trash, and removing graffiti from the river. All the while, he and his comrades are learning about native landscaping, hydrology, and water quality management from their crew supervisor Brian Casey.

It is difficult work, but one that Salguero prefers to his aimless past. When he was 17, before entering the LACC program, Salguero was far from being the model student. "I went to a normal high school, but I wasn't really taking school seriously or anything like that. I'd skip classes, not really pay attention to the advice teachers gave, and got myself into trouble," he recalls. 

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Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Conservation Corps

Instead of homework, Salguero came home with tickets--for staying out of his Long Beach home past the curfew hour, even a DUI two months after turning 18. "It was a bunch of tickets that cost around $1,000," Salguero remembers. It was a steep price to pay, which had its consequences. 

Rather than ask his mother, a thrift shop owner who lived on unpredictable income, Salguero decided it would be better to pay off his debt himself. He started independent studies at the same time. "My mom doesn't get a paycheck and we could never tell what she would make," says Salguero, "I didn't want to put the stress on her." 
It was a good idea, but one that didn't quite pan out. Salguero had the hardest time finding a stable job that would help him pay off his tickets. "I wanted to apply to other jobs, but I would constantly see that they needed a high school diploma or work experience." 

The best Salguero could find was a warehouse job with unpredictable hours. He worked at two different warehouses --one in Long Beach and another in Los Angeles-- but was never able to financially support himself. 

At the same time, Salguero continued to struggle with his independent studies. "I didn't know what I was doing," he says. The soft-spoken young man was faced with just a packet, a class schedule twice a week, and not a lot of direction. "I didn't know what I was learning. If I had any question, I didn't really have anyone I could ask."

Salguero was lost and little by little, he had finally started to realize it himself. With no other good options, he took the advice his cousin had insisted on, apply to the LACC, a three-decade old organization that helped educate, train, and employ at-risk youth by giving them real world experience in conservation projects across Los Angeles. 

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Alex, like many youth who find guidance at LACC, found a path for himself in the challenging yet noble work of caring for the river.Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Conservation Corps.

Founded by former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor in 1986, LACC began with just 27 corps members headquartered in an abandoned fire station on the edge of downtown Los Angeles. 

It was patterned after the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) model during the time of President Roosevelt's New Deal. The conservation corps provided jobs to about 6 million young men who would help plant nearly three billion trees, 800 parks that would become future state parks, and construct thousands of miles of public roadways. Congress voted to eliminate funding for CCC in 1942, to divert funds for World War II efforts, but it provided inspiration for Kantor when the time came. 

"We walked into the bank with just two cents in our pocket," Kantor recalls on the LACC website. Kantor co-signed the bank loan that gave the organization $45,000 to purchase three passenger vans it would need to start their operations. Today, LACC Corps members can be found working throughout Los Angeles--in Redondo Beach, operating a coastal science education center to Pacoima, lending a hand in environmental assessment and remediation projects. Each year, conservation corps serve 26,000 young people nationwide. Locally, the LACC employs nearly 600 youth in the field each year. 

The program achieves multiple benefits in one swoop, but the most powerful change can be seen in LACC's constituents themselves, says Wendy Butts, CEO of LACC. 

"We've heard from many of our young people that if it weren't for the Corps, they would never have known about the Los Angeles River and the countless species of wildlife and native vegetation that call the River home. They never would have visited the trails in the Angeles National Forest or seen the shores of the Pacific Ocean in person. And they certainly wouldn't be able to name the types of trees and other greenery that thrive in Southern California, or know the importance of marine conservation efforts," says Butts. 

"We are proud of the fact that our offerings not only provide our youth with an opportunity to gain valuable work experience, a high school diploma, and a pathway to a career in the green economy, but that we also connect our youth to new experiences that they otherwise would not be able to access. They can work atop the San Gabriel Mountains instead of just seeing them from their doorstep. How amazing is that?"

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For Alex Salguero, became more than just a cemented waterway --it became a chance for his own transformation. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Conservation Corps.

LACC's program may sound like a saving grace, but Salguero recalls he had no such high hopes for the program. He simply had no idea what else to do. After procrastinating, hemming and hawing, Salguero finally walked into the LACC office and gave in his application. "They asked me if I wanted to work at the same time," says Salguero. It was an offer he couldn't refuse. 

Salguero admits he only came to LACC for "the high school diploma and the paycheck," but he soon found more to stick around for. "The more time you invest in it, you start to get a little love for what you do and the people you work with. I started to be something for myself. It helped me grow into a different person."

He was eventually placed in LACC's River Corps team, which works on the stretch of the river between Atwater Village and Lincoln Heights. His time in the river has helped him see it in a new light. "I never even knew there was an actual river, even if I lived in Long Beach and now in Los Angeles," says Salguero. "I thought it was just a big drainage where feces go. I didn't realize there were living animals and plants there."

He also began to see himself differently with the help of his case manager. Each LACC corps member is assigned a case manager that they regularly consult with. Sessions inevitably lead to questions about his next steps, his plans for the coming years. 

Like the river, people at LACC took a look at him and see not a dead end, but a future waiting to be realized. Salguero says it was those conversations that helped clarify his path. "They focused a lot on helping the community, but they also want you build yourself up as well," he says. 

Those conversations and his work on the river made him realize that he wanted to work within the community. After two years in the program, Salguero is now enrolled in Los Angeles Trade Tech studying Criminal Justice. He hopes to finish his bachelor's degree at a California state university and eventually pursue a career in law enforcement. 

Though most days are filled with hard work cleaning up the river, Salguero says it's given him a little time for appreciation especially at the area by Marsh Park. "It always catches my attention, how beautiful the Los Angeles River is," says Salguero, "Once you work on the area, you begin to see just how amazing the river actually is. Cleaning it up makes me feel like I've done something."

In Salguero's eyes, the river is now more than just a concrete structure. It has become a place where one becomes part of a greater whole. By working to better the river, he also saw improvements in himself. What was external became internal. "[Working on the river] helped me grow self-respect, as well as respect for the things around me and the things I invest my time and effort in. And it's taught me how to take on so much responsibility, and the biggest part, realizing that little actions can have a big impact."