Helping hand
Students with the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School get real-world experience working on projects for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. August Howell / Review

High above the fog in the Miramontes Ridge Open Space Preserve near Skyline Boulevard on Saturday morning, the sound of chainsaws filled the air. A 15-foot acacia tree began to sway, and a dozen boys cheered as the invasive tree crashed to the ground.

Leo Chavoya, who’s been doing this kind of work for the past three years, hurried over to demonstrate how to trim the rest of the tree.

The workers, ranging in age from 18 to 27, were clearing a section of trail near a private property so fire trucks could drive in unimpeded. They had already done several hours of work on Saturday morning before this tree was felled. But there was still plenty of work to be done.

The group consisted of select students from the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School, which over the past two years has collaborated with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District to provide students from the San Jose area with paid job experience in a new field.

The SJCC describes itself as “an educational safety net for young adults who have been disconnected from mainstream education and job training systems.” While giving these students an opportunity to pursue an alternative education, the corps pairs them with jobs involving an environmental or conservation effort, from recycling pickup to trail construction and wildfire prevention. Graduates from the nonprofit’s charter school have often attended several high schools before coming to this alternative. Some of these students work part time in addition to taking classes and doing these outdoor collaborations.

“Their work in the classroom is just as important to them,” said Brendan Dolan, a maintenance supervisor for Midpen.

According to Dolan, very few, if any, of these students have spent time in nature. Dolan has worked at Midpen for 20 years, and he began his career doing the same work as these students do now. He hopes to pass along his practical conservation knowledge, along with a love of the outdoors.

Midpen manages, protects and educates visitors on 60,000 acres of land in 26 open space preserves in both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Restoration of natural environments is a large part of Midpen’s work, along with acquiring land and encouraging sustainable agricultural practices, according to Leigh Ann Gessner, a public affairs specialist for Midpen.

“This can be a path toward a career if this is something that interests them,” she said.

The conservation corps works with other groups around the Bay Area, including wildfire prevention alongside Cal Fire workers, road maintenance with Caltrans, and work cleaning city and county parks. Aside from learning practical labor skills, several of the students said part of the appeal of these projects is working consistently side by side with a team to achieve a common goal.

“You have to be able to trust someone,” said Matt Wilhelm, the project manager.

Chavoya explained hazards include ticks, poison oak and working on steep terrain. The students must exercise caution when operating a chainsaw or wielding an ax.

On Friday, the team completed a four-day removal of patches of invasive jubata grass. Chavoya and the team “may wake up sore the next day,” but the camaraderie created by working together makes any pain worthwhile, participants say.

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