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Friday, January 28, 2022

How Civicorps members overcome setbacks, pandemic

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Auckland – During one last walk through the large warehouse that Civicorps calls their headquarters and where many young adults find a way out of life’s setbacks, you plunge into 21-year-old Jasmine Lagunas who will need to leave soon.

“I really don’t want to go,” said Lagunas Libby Hodas, a director at a nonprofit organization that has helped struggling youth gain paid work experience, complete their education, and get back on their feet again.

Hodas Lagunas states that Civicorps is just an apprenticeship program and at some point everyone has to move on from there.

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In the case of Lagunas, now is the time. She has ambitions of becoming a registered nurse, and her deft use of chainsaws and column saws – which she learned through Civicorps’ extensive training programs – can generate the much-needed income until she achieves her goal.

During the pandemic, Lagunas also found an internship at the nonprofit food bank. There, I helped prepare daily lunches for Civicorps’ commercial workers, who get paid full time to work on land management projects or a recycling program that contracts with more than 1,300 small businesses in the East Bay.

The skill building and employment opportunities that Civicorps provides are designed for those who have dropped out of high school or have had a hard time. Founded in 1983, this nonprofit organization finds customers through word of mouth and focuses on environmental work through a network of conservation agencies across California.

“The population served by Civiccorps has faced every conceivable barrier in the youth welfare system, the legal system or the juvenile legal system,” said organization spokeswoman Rachel Eisner. “And they failed because of traditional public education.”

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The organization received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves needy residents in East Bay. Donations to the program will help support 56 non-profit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Civicorps will use its grant toward the salary of a nonprofit case counselor who provides staff members with trauma counseling, conflict resolution, social services support, and case management.

Although Civicorps is primarily based in West Oakland, its reach has expanded and aligns with the evolving demographic of the Bay Area. In recent years, the nonprofit—which has an enrollment rate of 50% black and 33% Latino—has begun finding new members in Contra Costa and Solano counties, giving them transportation stipends so they can get the services they need.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 2: Jasmine Lagunas is photographed at Civicorps in Oakland, California, on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Lagunas underwent a free job training program at the nonprofit. (Jane Tesca/Bay Area News Group)

After spending two years at the training center, Lagunas became part of the community.

When I first got there, Laguna was temporarily homeless and broke. Nursing school was on hold for what seemed like forever.

But she quickly noticed how open and personable her co-workers and manager were, willing to talk about their lives and give her enough space to reflect on life’s challenges.

“Everyone leaves everything loose,” Lagunas said. “They don’t even care. There is no filter. We will just talk like nothing.”

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Lagunas heard about Civicorps through her aunt, who once worked there. Lagunas said her aunt was initially skeptical that she would be successful in the program — after all, saws are hard to handle and they are dangerous.

“My aunt was like, ‘I don’t know if you’ll make it,'” Lagunas said, “It’s a ‘boy’ job.” “But I enjoyed it. And look here, I’m still pushing it two years later.”

Jesus Vega, another person who finished her time at Civicorps, didn’t need to acquire new skills when she arrived to complete her high school diploma.

Instead, the 24-year-old came with a talent and passion for cooking, which Civicorps helped turn into a career after hooking up with the local Sprouts Cooking Club business school and later an internship at Sobre Mesa, a downtown Auckland restaurant.

Through an essay assignment in a Civicorps English class, teachers discover what Vega really wanted to do with her life. She has written extensively about her dreams of becoming a personal chef and trying new flavours. Years ago, Vega honed her craft in her family’s home kitchen, specializing in ceviche filled with lemon, tomato, and pepper.

Through her two internships, Vega learned how to prepare food quickly and in large quantities while thinking critically about different recipes. It’s an outlet, a career opportunity and a way out of the path she was on not too long ago, growing up in the high-crime neighborhood of Oakland where her father’s cancer diagnosis led to her dropping out of school in the 10th grade.

“Instead of staying home and dealing with the situation all the time, I’d rather stay away from it for a while,” Vega said of her internship. “I’d rather work and then take care of my parents… It’s a relief that I’m not on the streets, walking around doing stupid things.”

As their time at Civicorps draws to a close, Lagunas and Vega have fond memories of what they learned and the friends they made within the walls of a West Oakland warehouse.

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And like others who have come and gone before them, they will always be welcome.

“As of last Friday, while I was leaving, two alumni were here with their young child,” spokeswoman Isner said. I didn’t know them, they were ahead of my time. But we always love seeing a baby. Everyone is welcome here.”


Share the soul

The Share the Spirit Holidays campaign, sponsored by Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope, and opportunity to East Bay residents by funding nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

how to give

Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate.

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