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Kamillia Hoban 

Kamillia Hoban became executive director of the Southwest Conservation Corps seven months ago; before that, she did most of the jobs at the natural-resource stewardship agency that provides youth with work doing infrastructure projects, like park trails and habitat restorations. Hoban says she got her start in a similar organization as a crew member at the age of 14. Although she's rarely out in the field now, she says she knows first-hand that many kids in the program experience a life-affirming transformation while working out in the middle of the wilds. For more information, visit sccorps.org.

Where does the Southwest Conservation Corps do most of its work?

Mainly Southern Arizona, but also New Mexico and Colorado. We focus on local youth, but we will hire youth from anywhere in the country.

Do you have a recruiter who works to find the kids to join up?

We work a lot with schools and some dropout-prevention groups, and we even target students just graduating from high school. We work with a lot of students who are also in college. Those recruits tend to come from the Internet.

Have the projects always focused on the environment and infrastructure?

Yes. A majority are trail and conservation projects, working with all public-land agencies. We also do maintenance and new-trail construction, clean up border public-land areas, get rid of old roads, re-vegetation and get rid of evasive species. Our crews spend weeks at a time camping out in the desert or mountains. It is hard work.

That can be hard if you're really young and away from home for the first time.

We are working on creating a Tucson-based program for those who need to stay closer to home and can't camp out.

That's the Tucson Urban Corps, right?

Yes. We're working with the Ward 1 office on a potential restoration and trail project on A Mountain. We are also looking for energy-conservation and rainwater-harvesting projects in Tucson for urban crews.

How does the corps work? How do you fund your service?

The way we work is fee for service: We contract for the work we do and pay our young people to do the work. It's an interesting time, because some money is disappearing. However, with the (Economic) Recovery Act, there is quite a bit of money in stimulus that is supposed to go to public lands. Now we've gotten a lot of calls. There's more money now than in the past, although it's very short-term.

What do you think the kids get out of the programs?

It varies according to where they are in their life. You can have one crew (with kids from) many different backgrounds. ... In the end, they develop a lifelong stewardship to our public lands.

This isn't easy work.

Far from it. ... Nowadays, it is more and more rare that people experience a very physical job. They are out there really pushing themselves physically and mentally. When you're living and working with the same group of people for two to six months at a time to accomplish a common goal, something amazing happens.

In the real world, we also don't often get a chance to really work with many different kinds of people.

That's right. Here, there's a huge piece of developing community. You are thrown into it with a bunch of strangers, and you are taught to build community.

The other component is skill development. How does that work in the corps?

We call it a stepladder program. (Kids) can come in at any level—maybe they've had a minor brush with law, or have very little skills. If they are interested in this type of work, they can move up. ... We've seen some (participants) move into the Forest Service on a technical crew, or get trained to use chainsaws, or certified to get on fire crews. Another track is that some stay on as crew leaders for 10 months longer ... There is always more to do beyond the first two months.

You've been doing this kind of work since you were 14. You must really love it.

I do. It can be stressful at times with a lot going on. I have had most of the jobs. Now I'm not out in the field seeing amazing transformations, but it is still very dear to my heart. Knowing the magic is still there is what keeps me going.

More by Mari Herreras

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