I started my career in the California Conservation Corps heading up to Calaveras County, which I’d never heard of before. I didn’t know a whole lot about the CCC, either, back in 1978. But what I wouldn’t have guessed is that I’d spend the next 35 years with the program, most of those years here in San Luis Obispo.
I’m retiring from the CCC at the end of December, and it’s bittersweet. There have been challenges, yes, but the community support we’ve received over the years has been nothing short of amazing. That, together with the young people we call corpsmembers and the work we’ve been able to do throughout the county and region — you couldn’t find a more rewarding job.
The CCC is a state agency offering young people between 18 and 25 a year of service and training in natural resource work and emergency response. We have a residential center here in San Luis Obispo, the Los Padres Center, located behind Cuesta College. It’s home to 80 corpsmembers, men and women from the whole spectrum of ethnic backgrounds. Some are from big cities, some from rural areas, some from around here. A few have taken college classes, others are working on their high school diplomas. All in all, they represent the diversity of California.
These corpsmembers are not “bad kids,” and in fact cannot join if they are on probation or parole. They’re here for many reasons — to work outdoors, acquire some job experience and training, get their lives on track, earn a paycheck.
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We try our best to provide a caring and positive environment enabling our corpsmembers to grow and learn. But in the years I’ve been with the CCC in San Luis Obispo, I never cease to be amazed at the transformations made over their months in the Corps. We change lives, we really do. And calls from former corpsmembers, reflecting on their CCC days five, 10 or 20 years later, mean more than you can imagine.
I’m often asked, “Have young adults changed much since I came to the Corps?” I really don’t think so. The faces change, the names change, but corpsmembers are still navigating those transition years after high school, and, for most, trying to figure out what to do next. Despite the physical labor and long days — our motto is “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions and more!” Our corpsmembers hold this motto in high esteem, like a badge of honor. They work extremely hard every day meeting the challenge.
That’s not hard to understand, since we are blessed to work for agencies and organizations such as California State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, the Morro Bay National Estuary Program , the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, the city of San Luis Obispo, Cambria Community Services District, Friends of the Elephant Seal and so many more.
If you’ve hiked up the trail to Bishop Peak, or maybe the Bob Jones trail, the CCC has worked there. Or maybe you’ve seen us involved in fish habitat work along the creeks. We’ve also helped restore historic buildings such as the Oceano Depot and the Point San Luis Lighthouse.
The CCC had a popular summer youth corps a few years back, hiring 60 local high school students in five different cities, with the help of the SLO Workforce Investment Board and Cuesta College. We’ve participated in work exchanges with programs in Montana and Australia. And we volunteer at local activities most weekends, whether it’s working at community gardens, dog parks or festivals.
Not only local residents reap the benefits. It’s also great to walk along the boardwalk we put in at Moonstone Beach in Cambria and hear so many different languages from the international visitors. The benefits of our work to the region’s economy is obvious.
We also have a major role in emergency response, sending crews locally and throughout the state: The Highway 41 and Las Pilitas fires; Avila Beach and San Luis Creek oil spills; The San Simeon Earthquake. Last month we trained our crews to be ready to respond to winter floods or storms, wherever they’re needed.
My proudest moments have come in the relatively few periods of adversity. During tough economic times, our center has been threatened with closure three times. But the outpouring of bipartisan support from community members and local officials without a doubt helped turn those decisions around. It could not have been more gratifying for us.
Back in 1977, the CCC decided to locate its very first center in San Luis Obispo. A good decision that has stood the test of time, and to which thousands of corpsmembers and hundreds of work sponsors can attest.
Thank you, San Luis Obispo County, for your ongoing support and encouragement over all these years. You are certainly one of the reasons for our success.
I’ll miss my work with the CCC, but you’re in good hands. I’m leaving a strong staff that will carry on the Corps’ efforts throughout the county and beyond. Hope to see you on the trails.
Domenic Santangelo is the center director of the California Conservation Corps’ Los Padres Center. He and his wife, Patty, live in Atascadero.