SGV Connect 109: Chris Greenspon Interviews Norma Quinones

CG: We’re here at the Jeff Seymour Family Center in El Monte, home of Active SGV. But today, we’re hanging out with the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, and why don’t you tell us your name and your role with the corps?

NQ: Yes. My name is Norma Quinones, I’m the executive director for San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps.

CG: So what’s this organization’s mission and background?

NQ: So the mission of the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps is to work with disadvantaged local youth located in the San Gabriel Valley and Pomona Valley area, to help them by developing their skills and preparing them for the workforce. So essentially, we’re working with them day to day in helping them gain their skills. So for example, they’re earning industry recognized certifications like first aid, CPR, OSHA training. So basically, we’re preparing them for the workforce: being punctual, being a team player, how to be an effective communicator. So we’re providing them with a real life work setting. So they’re coming in to work, they’re clocking in, clocking out, they’re provided with the full set of uniform. And they’re assigned to a crew with a supervisor who also serves as a role model and mentor, and that’s working along their side. So it’s called an Earn and Learn model. So they’re earning a wage an hourly wage, and then they’re learning a skill. So it can be that soft skill that I just mentioned, that are very important skills for the workforce. So that is our mission is providing job training opportunities for young people. So we have three main buckets. One is our job training, which I just mentioned, and talked about. Our second bucket is education. So for those youth that need a high school diploma, we partner with Youth By Charter School, California, who is under our umbrella. They provide the high school diploma, so a youth that comes to our program can essentially be doing both at the same time; they’re earning their diploma, and they’re doing job training. Or they could be doing one or the other depending on the path that the individual’s in. Sometimes they need a little bit more help with the education piece first before they actually enter the worksite. And then our third component is leadership development. So they’re actually earning the certifications, learning these skills, we’re providing them with the training, so it’s helping them build their confidence and their leadership skills through the trainings that we provide.

CG: So how do you find these young people? And how do they find you? I’m imagining there’s a relationship with continuation schools.

NQ: So a lot of our youth that come to our program is really … it’s a word of mouth, a lot of them are coming through perhaps a youth that completed our program, they got their diploma, or they receive their diploma with us, they received the training with us. So it could be like another family member or a friend. But we also work with other service providers in the SGV. So it can be other community based organizations that work with a similar population. We also work with some county departments as well that refer youth to us, we also use our social media, to be able to get some participants to enroll in our program. So social media, Instagram, Facebook, those are the two main platforms that we’re currently using.
CG: So who are these kids really? You know, we’ve got a general descriptor of where they’re coming from, but what are the people you’re working with like? Who are they?
NQ: They all come from different walks of life. So some of our youth that are coming in have little to no work experience. They perhaps just graduated from high school and need some type of sense of direction. They have never had a job before. And they’re trying to, you know, learn what does it take to have a job. And so they can come to the setting, and, you know, not feel intimidated or feel empowered, so that they’re learning as they go. And they’re with other peers that are also going through the same. Some youth that come to our program are also… maybe they need a second chance. Maybe they, did some bad things in their life, and they’re on probation, or we’ve had some that are also on parole. So we strongly believe in second chances. So a lot of the youth that come perhaps can have a background. Some of our youth just maybe didn’t grow up having a lot of opportunities, maybe they don’t know how to navigate through county systems or what’s out there to help themselves and their families. So we want to be able to provide that opportunity for them.

CG: So how do they affect the San Gabriel Valley?

NQ: A lot of the projects that we work on in the San Gabriel Valley are, you know, just the local communities that our youth live in. So they can live in El Mont, they can live in La Puente, City of industry, or maybe you know some work that we’re doing at some of our county parks. Maybe they go there on the weekends with their families. So a lot of the work that they’re doing is at these local facilities or cities, where they’re actually, you know, planting trees beautifying their cities, you know, so they see the direct impact that they’re making when they’re actually working in our program.

CG: There is one program that I don’t know if it originated with the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, but it’s very familiar to me. I saw it growing up all my life. And it’s those painted vines that you see in Valinda and Avocado Heights, West Puente Valley… basically all the unincorporated areas that everybody knows as La Puente. Can you tell us more about that project, and what the Conservation Corps’ role is? Did the Corps create it? Or did they pick it up from a community project?

NQ: Yeah, so the vines have as you know, they have been around for a very long time. I also remember growing up seeing them, you know, in the Puente Valley/La Puente area. We actually partnered up with LA County Supervisor Solis with this project. It’s actually a community development block grant. So our focus is to basically beautify the city of, well, the unincorporated areas of La Puente. So all of Puente Valley, Bassett, San Jose Hills. And so it whether it’s by painting, vines, or installing trellises, or maybe doing some bulky item pickups, and I just wanted to mention about the beautification piece and the vine paintings, we’re helping the community by deterring graffiti. So that’s really the purpose of us going out there and talking to the homeowners, seeing if anybody’s interested in us, you know, beautifying their wall that’s empty, has no, you know, it’s a blank canvas for us with either a vine painting or a trellis. So again, it’s for the purposes of keeping the walls clean of graffiti. And the work is done by the young people that are in our program. So either painting them, or doing the installation of the trellis is but in addition, like I mentioned, other beautification services in the area,

CG: And now tell us about EarthWorks farm, that’s another project that the Corps does within city limits, right? Well, we just were talking about an unincorporated area project – but as far as a project that actually occurs in an urban area.

NQ: Yeah, so EarthWorks farm is located in South El Monte. And we were managing it and so now we’re relocating to Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale, which is another county property. We’re actually going to relocate the six acres of land, essentially, but we’re pretty much starting from scratch. But it’s an opportunity for our young people to be trained in urban farming, and being also a community asset to those that, you know, need fresh, fresh fruits and vegetables.

CG: The other day, I spoke to a member of your organization on the phone when I was trying to nail down our date and location. And he was telling me that one project he was really proud of was some – this isn’t the right term – not fire abatement, but… creating defensible space. Was it somewhere maybe in the San Gabriel Mountains? Could you tell us about some of the projects that the Corps is involved with in natural spaces, a little bit away from town?

NQ: Yeah, so those are some really great opportunities for the youth that we work with. And I just want to mention first that a lot of our youth don’t have that experience, or they’ve never been up to the mountains, you know, they just… SGV is all they know, or maybe just their hometown. So being able to give them that experience to go up to the Angeles National Forest, and explore and do some beautification up there, it’s really impactful for them. I’ve seen the youth right at the beginning of the workday, and then at the end of the workday, they’re just like a completely different person. When you’re out in nature, just it does something to you. And so we’re really just proud that we have those partnerships. And a lot of the work that we do is, you know, fire mitigation. You know, we also do beautification of the campsite, invasive species removals. So we’re actually going to be doing some fire cleanups as well where the Bobcat Fires happened. So we will clean all that up. And then we will beautify by coming in either planting trees, or, you know, planting some drought tolerant plants.

CG: Now, where’s this organization going next? You guys just got a pretty sweet grant, right?

NQ: We just received a $1.1 million grant through LA County Regional Parks Open Space District through the Measure A fund and basically the grant is going to go towards our new urban farm. And so the goal is that we’re going to train over 30 participants in urban farming, but also getting them certified and trained so that this, iand many of our other projects can become the pipelines for them to get into county jobs, Department of Forestry, maybe Public Works utility jobs. So we want them to get all that experience, get all the certifications, so that they can easily go into a job and be job-ready. So this grant is going to really help us solidify and really strengthen the relationship that we have with LA County Parks.

CG: Okay, Norma, last question – So you’re from the San Gabriel Valley, right?

NQ: Yes, I grew up in Baldwin Park.

CG: Okay, BP. Did you go to – this is a side question – Did you go to BP high or did you go to Sierra Vista?

NQ: Baldwin Park High School, yes.

CG: What year did you graduate?

NQ: 2000

CG: Okay, you may or may not have had my mother-in-law as an English teacher, but that’s besides the point. Anyway – shout out, mom – so… one project that is not on the books at all, if there was a project you could do somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley, do you have a fantasy or pipe dream project or maybe not such a pipe dream, very tenable, something that you could and maybe will do that you want to tell us about?

NQ: Well, I can’t give out all my secrets, but I would just love to see us have a partnership agreement with all of the cities in the San Gabriel Valley so that we can hire their local youth. That is the biggest sell, like when I come into the city and say we want to partner or they come to us, we basically let them know we’re going to hire your youth first. That is the priority. So the youth that are doing the work in their city are invested. And they’re investing in, you know, the local youth in their communities. So I just want to be able to kind of get into every city, be able to be brought on, get a contract with them to be able to hire their local youth and just continue you know, providing the services that we do in all the San Gabriel Valley and Pomona Valley area.

CG: Norma Quinones thanks for coming on SGV Connect.

NQ: Thank you so much.