Share the Spirit: Facing tough times, Oakland residents get back on career track through Civicorps
Founded in 1983, the nonprofit finds clients through word-of-mouth and focuses on environmental work through a network of conservation corps across California.
OAKLAND — During a recent stroll through the large warehouse that Civicorps calls its headquarters and where so many fledgling adults find a way out of life’s setbacks, it’s sinking in on 21-year-old Jasmine Lagunas that she will soon need to leave.
“I really don’t want to go,” Lagunas tells Libbie Hodas, a manager at the nonprofit that has helped struggling young adults pick up paid work experience, complete their education and get back on their feet.
Hodas reminds Lagunas that Civicorps is just a career-training program and at some point everyone must move on from there.
In Lagunas’ case, that time is now. She has ambitions of becoming a registered nurse, and her masterful use of chainsaws and pole saws — learned through Civicorps’ extensive training programs — could get her much needed income until she achieves her goal.
During the pandemic, Lagunas also found an internship at the nonprofit’s food bank. There, she helped prepare daily lunches for Civicorps’ trade workers, who themselves are paid full-time for working 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 work opportunities offered by Civicorps are designed for those who dropped out of high school or stumbled into tough times. Founded in 1983, the nonprofit finds clients through word-of-mouth and focuses on environmental work through a network of conservation corps across California.
“The population that Civicorps serves has faced every conceivable barrier in the foster youth system or the legal system or the juvenile legal system,” said the organization’s spokeswoman, Rachel Eisner. “And they’ve been failed by traditional public education.”
The organization received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves residents in need in the East Bay. Donations to the program will help support 56 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
Civicorps’ will use its grant toward the salary of one of the nonprofit’s case counselors who provide the corpsmembers with trauma counseling, conflict resolution, social services support and case management.
Although Civicorps is based primarily in West Oakland, its reach has expanded and aligned with the Bay Area’s evolving demographic populations. In recent years, the nonprofit — whose enrollment is 50% Black and 33% Latino — began finding new members in Contra Costa and Solano counties, giving them transportation stipends so they can get the services they need.
After spending two years at the training center, Lagunas has become part of a community.
When she first arrived there, Lagunas was temporarily homeless and broke. Nursing school was on hold for what seemed forever.
But she quickly noticed how open and personable her coworkers and manager were, willing to talk about their lives and give her enough space to contemplate life’s challenges.
“Everybody just lets everything loose,” Lagunas said. “They don’t even care. There’s no filter; we’re just going to talk like nothing.”
Lagunas heard about Civicorps through her aunt, who had once worked there. At first, Lagunas said, her aunt was skeptical that she would get through the program — after all, chainsaws are hard to handle and dangerous.
“My auntie was like, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to make it, it’s more ‘boy’ work,’ ” Lagunas said. “But I enjoyed it. And look here, I’m still pushing it like two years later.”
Jesus Vega, another person wrapping up 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 her turn into a career after connecting her to the local Sprouts Cooking Club trade school and later an internship at Sobre Mesa, a downtown Oakland restaurant.
It was through an essay assignment at her Civicorps English class that instructors discovered what Vega really wanted to do with her life. She had written at length about her dreams of becoming a personal chef and experimenting with new flavors.
Years before, Vega honed her craft in the kitchen of her family home, specializing in lime, tomato and pepper-infused ceviche.
From her two internships, Vega learned how to prepare food quickly and in large volumes while thinking critically about different recipes. It’s an outlet, a career opportunity and a way out of the path she was on not long ago, having grown up in a high-crime Oakland neighborhood where her father’s cancer diagnosis led her to drop out of school in the 10th grade.
“Instead of being at home and handling the situation all the time, I’d rather get away from it for a while,” Vega said of her internships. “I’d rather be working and then taking care of my parents… it’s a relief for them that I’m not out in the streets, riding around and doing dumb things.”
With their time at Civicorps about to run out, Lagunas and Vega have fond memories of what they learned and the friends they’ve made within the walls of the West Oakland warehouse.
And like others who came and went before them, they’ll always be welcome.
“Even last Friday, as I was leaving, two alumni were here with their young baby,” spokesperson Eisner said. “I didn’t know them, they were before my time. But we always love seeing a baby. Everyone’s welcome here.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by funding nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.