Is East Bay Parks expanding or stifling its program for at-risk youth?

Donny Diaz experienced a significant shift in his life a few months ago when the 23-year-old discovered a program designed to help young people like him find their path in life. Diaz, now a few months into the East Bay Regional Park District’s youth employment program, attests that it has completely changed his life.

“It’s definitely helped me really come into my own and understand who I am,” Diaz told the East Bay Echo. “Without it, I don’t know where I’d be at this moment.”

However, recent developments have raised concerns about the future of this transformative program. Former and current park employees, who have directly worked with the youth and witnessed the program’s positive impact, are concerned about what they say is a stifling of the program. During a recent meeting, employees urged the district’s Board of Directors not to cut it.

“I would encourage you to look at ways to enhance this program, to move this program forward,” Dave Riensche, district wildlife biologist, told the board, “because it’s a great program and it makes a difference.”

A month later, the district responded by announcing an expansion of the youth employment program through a partnership with Civicorp, focusing on trails maintenance and wildfire prevention. Employees argue that the announcement conceals an underlying issue: that program is separate from the the internal youth employment program supervised by Ross Mitchell, president of union AFSCME Local 2428.

Launched in 2014, the internal program forges partnerships with agencies like the Contra Costa County Office of Education to provide valuable job skills training to youth facing challenges, such as pregnancy, foster care, homelessness or other circumstances rendering them “at-risk.” While the Civicorp partnership has been touted by the district as a means to bolster the program’s reach, employees say it exclusively covers youths recruited through Civicorp, without prioritizing community partnerships. Without those partnerships, they say the district will reach fewer young people who could benefit from this opportunity.

Former park district employees Dave Weaver and Francis Mendoza, who previously worked with the youth in the program, both emphasized to the East Bay Echo the profound impact of mentorship and training on the young people, particularly in a natural setting.

“Many of the youth have become full-time park employees and have also moved onto other professions that are in the outdoors and in nature,” Mendoza said.

Diaz said he was initially uncertain how to navigate an eight-hour workday, but the program equipped him with various crucial skills: time management, effective communication with colleagues, emotional regulation and professionalism.

Mitchell has been actively pursuing approvals for partnerships with two additional youth service providers. These requests have, thus far, received no response from the board, raising concerns about the reluctance in approving new partnerships.

“We have partner organizations that have been wanting to partner with the district since February,” Mitchell told the board in July. “The district has not signed those agreements and we’ve denied their youth chances to work, earn money, gain mentors at the park district.”

The internal program operates at no cost to the district, except for Mitchell’s salary for overseeing it, and is entirely sustained by a federal grant obtained through the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act.

Despite repeated requests, an East Bay Parks spokesperson refused to comment, asserting in an email that the announcement regarding the Civicorp expansion was sufficiently clear, despite being told otherwise.

Without comment, it remains uncertain why the board made its decision. But Cliff Rocha, who has been with the district for 16 years, pointed out at the July 18 meeting that there has been an ongoing pattern of retaliation against union leadership at the district. This is just the latest example.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 510-952-7455.

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