As young people leaving high school and college vie for entry-level jobs upon graduation — often fighting with workers over 65 or people who’ve lost employment during the Great Recession — one Sonoma County program aimed at giving area youths jobs has seen a record number of applicants.
The Sonoma County Sumer Youth Ecology Corps, a partnership between the Sonoma County Water Agency and local nonprofits that provides minimum wage jobs for people ages 16-21 in six Sonoma County cities, was created three years ago to give kids a chance to gain work experience and develop skills needed for the job market.
In Rohnert Park and Cotati, 90 kids turned in applications this summer to fill 25 spots. That number is comparable with the other cities in Sonoma County, said Ann DuBay, a spokesperson for the water agency. Altogether, 200 people countywide were given jobs.
That the summer jobs program has had such a high turnout and thus, was forced to turn people away, underpins Sonoma County’s 9.4 unemployment rate.
“We weren’t expecting this many people to apply; it was an incredibly competitive process,” said Jim Gattis, the executive director of Sonoma County Youth and Adult Development, the Rohnert Park nonprofit working with the water agency. “This really gives kids an opportunity to earn money during off-school months, and it helps them stay out of trouble.”
"There's also groups of kids working to restore city-owned property and with the local Boys and Girls Club," Gattis said. "It's teaching them important life and work skills."
Officials tout the program as a win-win for the water agency and cities. In Rohnert Park, between 12 and 15 kids are sent out to area creeks to do habitat restoration, such as removing invasive plants and clearing walking paths of brush along creek beds.
“I really like working outdoors, and I’m learning things I never knew about the environment,” said Javier De La Cruz, 18, a summer employee with Youth Ecology Corps.
De La Cruz recently enlisted in the Marines, and he’s scheduled to leave this October, he said.
“This is giving me work experience and keeping me busy until I go,” he said.
On a recent day, Nasario Chavez, 16, worked alongside De La Cruz, removing nonnative blackberry brush and chopping down other invasives such as fennel.
“This is a fantastic program — the kids learn about native plants and the local habitat, they learn about flood control, and meanwhile they’re helping keep the creeks shaded for fish populations,” said Marc Bautista, an environmental specialist with the Sonoma County Water Agency.
"It's so huge because they're learning things they otherwise might not get a chance to — plant identification, water and soil cycles, natural resource management," Bautista added. "We're educating them and we're getting a service in return."
“It’s definitely helping me stay out of trouble,” Chavez said. “If I didn’t have a job, I’d probably be hanging out with people I shouldn’t.”
Editor's note: The Youth Ecology Corps is open to people between 14 and 21, and runs from June 13 through Aug 5, four hours a day from Monday through Thursday. View the video and listen to what Chavez has to say about the program, by clicking on the image to the right.
Note from the Sonoma County Water Agency: The Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps was created in 2009 by a partnership including the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board, the Sonoma County Human Services Department, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Sonoma County Office of Education and the nonprofit New Ways to Work.
The 2009 program was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The 2010 program was primarily funded through two federal programs: The Workforce Investment Act and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund (ARRA funds). In addition, the Sonoma County Water Agency, which is responsible for maintenance and habitat restoration of 90 miles of local creeks and flood control channels, provided matching funds.
The 2011program will be funded by Workforce Investment Act dollars, with matching funds being contributed by the Sonoma County Water Agency. Kaiser Permanente, the Miranda Lux Foundation, Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space and the Sonoma County Fish and Wildlife Commission have also contributed to the program and Friedman’s Home Improvement has provided deep discounts on the tools used by crew members.
Five regional nonprofit youth providers hire, train and administer paychecks for youth workers: Petaluma People Services Center, Social Advocates for Youth, West County Community Services, the Center for Social and Environmental and Social Stewardship, and Sonoma County Adult and Youth Development.
Crews will be working for environmental and conservation-related non-profit and government agencies from around the county on projects ranging from restoration and maintenance of local streams and flood control channels to beach clean ups to trail building.