Story and photos by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Ten youthful offenders welcomed family members to Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp Nov. 17 for a high school graduation ceremony that included speeches by Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Director Chuck Supple and CAL FIRE Chief Robert Withrow.

Pine Grove Superintendent Alicia Ginn and Principal Kim Rigg also addressed the youth and their families, recognizing the sacrifices necessary to earn a diploma simultaneous to the dogged pace of camp duties.

This file image shows Pine Grove’s youth firefighters on a hook line earlier this year.

“They have a long day working and have school in the evening that goes until 9:30 at night, so this is quite an accomplishment and it’s very hard,” Ginn acknowledged. “The family members here are a part of that.

“By sitting here, you have shown that you support them.”

“Learn what the rest of your life is going to look like,” Rigg added. “I want you all to think about how you feel today and how you felt when you finished those credits and pursue experiences that give you the same feeling of accomplishment.”

Youth earn the right to volunteer in a conservation camp by their behavior while they are incarcerated. Youth are carefully screened and medically cleared on a case-by-case basis before they are accepted into the program.

The 10 graduates were sent to various sites throughout the 2017 California fire season, including the Deer Complex Fire in Contra Costa County, Willow Fire in Santa Cruz County, Garza Fire in Fresno County, Ranch Fire in El Dorado County, Ponderosa Fire in Butte County and most recently the Mendocino Lake Complex Fire in both Mendocino and Lake Counties.

The youth worked on fire line construction and fire control/back burning during one of the most devastating fire seasons in state history.

“These gentlemen right here are part of a type 1 fire crew, the highest certification a fire crew can receive,” Withrow explained. “They go out and battle fires with every other firefighter up and down the state of California. They absolutely put themselves in harm’s way in extremely demanding situations.

“These gentlemen are a part of our infantry, and CAL FIRE could not meet its mission without these folks. They do an exceptional job for us and are a huge part of our system.”

Withrow reminded attendees that the youth also work in the community on conservation projects and had worked tirelessly the day prior ―cutting brush and burning piles amid heavy rains in Amador County.

“These folks in this camp have put in over 80,000 man hours on fire lines this year,” Withrow added. “They have also combatted flooding. Wherever they can, these fellas participate, putting in over 200,000 man hours of community service.”

Supple thanked the youth for their valuable service to the community and the class work that earned them gowns on graduation day.

“DJJ and Cal Fire staff at Pine Grove have a shared mission to put out those fires in the community and help ignite fires of change inside each of you,” Supple said fervidly. “California is on fire and we are facing serious challenges, and unfortunately it may get worse, so we need more young people like yourselves doing the hard work to fight them.

“And the other difficult work to be done is changing your lives, and you’ve shown you can do that today.”

According to the RAND Corporation, incarcerated people who participate in correctional educational programs are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend. Numerous studies show that, in general, the more education received, the less likely an individual is to return to prison.

DJJ, operating with a population of around 620, has handed out about 166 new diplomas or GED certificates each year since 2012. The 2016-17 school year was especially prolific, as 47 percent of eligible students (182 of them) received their GED or diploma.

Supple brought keynote speaker Christian Franco to address the youth.

Franco earned his high school diploma and enrolled in his first college classes while incarcerated and has gone on to enjoy a rewarding advocacy career working within Yuba, Sutter, Yolo and Sacramento counties. He mapped out his own path to success and encouraged youth to utilize the valuable skills they picked up at camp to find a quality job upon reentry.

“Our job as leaders is to effect the next generation,” Franco said. “Graduating is the first step. Next step ― college.

“You guys hold job experience and you can parole right now and apply for a job. Be whoever you want to be.”

Youth firefighter Fernando Herrera thanked all the speakers for their support, praise and advice. He recognized the person responsible for the progress that brought him to the lectern.

“I love you mom,” Herrera said as his mother wept in the audience. “I have to take the opportunity to recognize the strongest woman and the greatest mom that any man could ask for.

“She has remained by my side despite how unpleasant the circumstances may be. My mother’s patience and undying love has made tremendous impact on my character.”

After Herrera’s deeply personal dialogue and his charge for youth firefighters to command their future, Rigg presented Pine Grove’s graduating class and allowed family to share an emotional reception with the youth.

Even when greeting friends and congratulating peers, Herrera never let go of his mother’s hand.