Teens get outdoor work experience with Ecology Corps

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For Joel Sanchez, 17, this summer has been both educational and productive. Sanchez has been spending his summer outdoors working with a group of teens on the Petaluma Bounty Farm as part of the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps program.

“It’s hard work, but we’ve been learning a lot about how to plant and harvest,” Sanchez said.

For eight weeks during the summer, the SCYEC employs youth ages 14-to-24 to work outdoors on ecosystem restoration and conservation-related projects. Launched with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and local water agency support in 2009, the program brings together a diverse group of county and non-county agencies to give youth paid work experience, develop work-readiness skills and the opportunity to explore careers.

The Petaluma People Services Center organizes the countywide program in Petaluma and is one of five community-based agencies employing and supervising the youth and young adults. The jobs range from flood mitigation and stream restoration activities to maintaining and building trails in local parks and gardening projects around the county. Some youth not suited to outdoor crew work are placed with local nonprofit organizations and a small number of crews of older youth continue in a year-round program. Entry-level youth earn $9 an hour and older youth, who use power tools, earn $10-$11 an hour.

The SCYEC hosted a Visit a Crew Day on July 23 where youth working at the Petaluma Bounty Farm led a tour and shared what they’ve been up to this summer.

“We’ve been doing a lot of weeding,” said Jose Garcia, 17. “But I like being outdoors. I wanted to work outside during the summer.”

“It’s been more than just pulling weeds,” added Nicholas Mizrachi, 18. “It feels good to be working and seeing the progress you’ve made and seeing the garden thriving.”

“Our goal is to really bring these kids together so that they get work experience and also get some environmental or ecology work experience,” said Elece Hempel, executive director of PPSC. “The program is about giving young people work experience, but it’s also more than that. Our production farm, Petaluma Bounty, produces food that is distributed to the Petaluma Health Center, the interfaith pantry system and Committee on the Shelterless, so working here is a way for young people to also give back and be part of the life cycle of how food is distributed in our community.”

Hempel said that there are 250 youths participating in the program countywide this year, with eight of them working at the farm or at the PPSC office. About 70 percent of the participants in the program are at-risk youth.

“They are all learning skills that make them marketable to employers in the future,” Hempel said.

Through the summer, SCYEC participants receive job-readiness training, environmental education and attend a financial literacy workshop. The program culminates with the Opportunity Job Fair, to be held on July 30 at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa.

While it may be hard work, the youth at the Petaluma Bounty Farm are enjoying being outdoors, learning new skills and seeing the fruits of their labor.

“What’s satisfying about this? See that field over there,” said Steven Placencia, 19. “There was nothing there before. Now look at it. It’s full of vegetables.”

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at On Twitter at Yovanna_Argus)

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