Save the Environment, Transform a Life – Brandon Benton, Community Recycling Programs Coordinator

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If you drive through Marin and Sonoma Counties you’ve seen them along the side of the road, in their green hats, and blaze orange safety vests brandishing weed trimmers, shovels, and post hole diggers. They are the young adults of Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB). Their mission is to protect the environment and transform their lives through classroom education, job training, and paid work that can lead to a lifetime of employment and civic engagement.

Since 1982, 12,000 young men and women have come through the program. Last year they maintained 96 miles of trails, planted 2,288 native trees, constructed 287 stairs, reduced hazardous fuels on 313 acres of the wildland-urban interface, and recycled over 80 tons of bottles and cans from Sonoma and Marin roadways, parks, and beaches.

And REDF helped by providing multi-year funding and specialized advisory services so CCNB could better serve the young men and women in its program.

In 2009, Brandon Benton first entered CCNB as a young man in pursuit of his high school diploma. Over the next two years, Brandon earned the credits he needed in CCNB’s formal classroom instructional program to graduate while at the same time developing the work skills he would need to sustain a living. That was a first for him. “I never had been part of a work program before,” he remembers. The on-the-job training, the tools, and the feeling of being part of a group that shared the same motivation were all new to Brandon. “I never had experienced any of those things,” Brandon says.

At CCNB, Brandon found that people actually believed in him. “I was anonymous in a big high school, one of thousands,” he says.  “When I turned 18 I started making poor decisions, and ended up not graduating with my class.” Brandon discovered the education program at CCNB, “is very personal. You realize the people are here to help you. There’s no judgment. I could see what credits I was missing, and plan what I needed to knock out.”

Brandon graduated from the CCNB Youth program in 2011 with his high school degree, job skills, and a goal of “paying it forward.”  Two years later Brandon returned to CCNB, drawn by the opportunity to work with young people who shared the same struggles he had confronted as a teenager. “It’s a weird transition becoming an adult. I know what it is like to be in the program. I know what it’s like to not know where you are going.”

Today Brandon serves as Community Recycling Programs Coordinator with CCNB where he works directly with the corps members. “I made my way back because I want to make a direct impact on the lives of young people in our communities. I can relate to young people coming through the program. We share a common theme—not getting our high school diploma and not having any work readiness skills.”

Brandon is juggling his work at CCNB with academics as he earns his degree in criminal justice. Currently enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College, he plans on transferring to a four-year university. He likes the social work aspect of becoming a probation officer. “Some folks see that as punitive—catching people violating parole,” he says.  “I see it a different way. I want to help people not reoffend so they don’t go back to prison.”

At CCNB, Brandon’s reward, in addition to a paycheck, comes from helping “people who have have come into the program starting from nothing knock it out of the park.” He’s seen corps members earn their diploma, get their driver’s license, find internships, and land jobs they can turn into careers.  That feeling of accomplishment is something Brandon sees in the community as well. “As a corps member you start a project in an area that hasn’t been maintained and a few weeks later it looks beautiful. People in the neighborhood thank you. That’s a huge benefit to this program—being part of something that directly impacts the community you live in.”

There’s a similar transformation taking place at CCNB in the young adults Brandon works with.  Once corps members complete their high school degree, Brandon sees a “literal weight lift off their shoulders. They feel like they have accomplished something. I always go and shake their hand. It’s a big deal.”