Delaware River Conservation Corps offers career paths
10 groups in the watershed are promoting sustainable jobs in climate resiliency and green infrastructure
| October 11, 2022
When Aaron Kirkland Sr. got out of prison in late 2014, he enrolled in a service in Philadelphia that helps ex-convicts reintegrate to the world after incarceration. Then he heard about a program called PowerCorpsPHL.
At the time, he recalled with a laugh, he was skeptical of anything that called itself a program.
What he found at PowerCorpsPHL, though, was passion, energy, motivation and inspiration. He was with the corps for six months and then did a yearlong apprenticeship with the Philadelphia Water Department.
“Having the government on my resume, I knew that would help me,” he said.
The corps, which is based in Philadelphia, models itself on an “earn and learn” approach to set its members on specific career paths and to maximize their chances of success.
The corps is one of 10 that make up a larger Delaware River Climate Corps, a new initiative to enhance climate resiliency and improve paths to so-called green careers in the Delaware River watershed in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
The Delaware River Climate Corps is made up of groups in: Wilmington, Del.; Bridgeton, Camden, Phillipsburg and Trenton, N.J.; Hancock, N.Y.; and Allentown, Chester, Philadelphia and Reading in Pa.
During his yearlong apprenticeship, organizers emphasized to Kirkland repeatedly that there were no guarantees about what would come next.
But what did come next was a steady rise up the ladder from a maintenance worker to an acting crew chief to permanent crew chief to his current role as a supervisor overseeing 24 people in the green stormwater division of the Philadelphia Water Department.
The crew handles masonry, concrete, structural repairs, among other duties. It’s a far cry from his start working solely with brooms and rakes.
“PowerCorps was like a family to me,” said Kirkland, 34. Today, he is married, has two children, owns a home, completed his associate’s degree in liberal arts and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
He recalled what a leap it was advancing from being a staff member to a supervisor. “That was a big jump for me going from staff to supervisor because now you have to tell the guy who you were buddy-buddy with what to do,” he said.
Asked if he ever thought that he would one day be supervising two dozen people, he laughed and said, “Blind faith, man.”
He said the corps gave him a platform and that its leaders vouched for him, allowing him to advance.
“It just cracked open the door,” he said.
Path to success
Julia Hillengas, executive director of PowerCorpsPHL, emphasized that the program is structured to not just engage in climate-resilient projects but also to provide a path to equity and economic opportunity by providing real-world experience that enrollees can use to launch their careers.
Past participants have gone on to work in Philadelphia’s street, parks and recreation or water departments in roles such as electricians or managers.
Others have gone to work for nonprofits or in the private sector. The goal is not just to set up participants to gain another job but to put them on a path toward sustainability and upward mobility, she said.
Daniel Lawson, director of technical assistance for PowerCorpsPHL, said one of the challenges of the program is “how do you engage people who are not traditionally asked to serve?
How long enrollees stay in PowerCorpsPHL, which was founded in 2013, can range from four months to two years, depending on their skills, background and where a person wants to go next. Members work 30 to 35 hours a week. The Philadelphia program has 100 participants over the course of a year, from 18 to 30 years old, who earn $14 an hour.
Orientation helps corps members get an understanding of certain soft skills, such as professionalism and interpersonal communications. As Kirkland said of the training: “You go straight from high school to prison, you miss out on a lot of stuff.”
As for the larger Delaware River Conservation Corps, the overall mission is a blend of addressing systemic barriers to employment and providing mentoring and training that can lead to careers in conservation and resource efficiency.
Those careers can touch on landscaping and horticulture, home weatherization, stream and wetlands restoration, environmental mapping and data collection, green stormwater infrastructure, and rooftop solar infrastructure, according to The Corps Network, a national association of service and conservation corps.
Lawson said the “bread-and-butter” work of PowerCorpsPHL is on trails, wetlands and urban forests, while other projects can involve sprucing up the grounds of recreation centers, community gardens or neighborhood parks.
The program tends to be most active from March through November, though work can continue during the off-season. Hillengas noted, for instance, that in PowerCorpsPHL’s first year, Philadelphia was hit by a blizzard and workers were deployed to clear paths at recreation and senior centers.
In the field
Pedro Soto, a PowerCorpsPHL supervisor overseeing green stormwater infrastructure, wears a yellow fluorescent vest. Soto, 28, stands amid tall plants and underground detention basins at Ingersoll Park in Philadelphia, which will absorb excess water and help mitigate potential flooding. Soto, who gets daily work orders from the Philadelphia Water Department about what needs addressing, is leading a crew.
Soto recalls his path to joining the corps. He said he hated school but tested well.
“I was just anywhere and everywhere,” he said. Coming to the corps, he said, he discovered passions that combined his interests in water, nature and education, and that being outdoors in the field agreed with him.
Jamillah Scarborough, who is known as Mills and who was a member of the work crew at the park, said that before joining the corps, there was time in jail, “running in the streets” and trying to figure out a future.
“I liked what PowerCorps was offering,” Scarborough said. “I just like being outside, period. I’m learning every day something new.”
About four miles north of the park, at the Happy Hollow Recreation Center, workers used loppers and shears to get at the overgrown vines and invasive species of plants that carpeted a fence line. There are rewards in seeing the difference the work can make. Signs of progress abound.
Shaymus Brown, 23, and Nasir Halloman, 19, enthusiastically speak of the invasive plant species they’ve identified along the overgrown fence. The day before this assignment, they learned how to build raised garden beds to grow vegetables.
Destiny Lewis, 23, a crew leader on the site who has been with the corps since 2018, described how her crew mates are more than just workers. She said she helps look out for their needs and supports them outside of work.
“PowerCorps definitely helped me mature and grow up,” Lewis said. “I like being a crew leader to just beautify Philadelphia.”
Julie Slavet, the executive director of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, said her group has been partners with PowerCorpsPHL for many years. Corps crews have done cleanups and planting in and around Tacony Creek Park.
“We greatly value our partnership,” Slavet said. “The crew members face many challenges because of the structural racism embedded in our society, and the program provides them with support and training. These young people are the future of the city.”