“This was a dark, evil place when we started,” Suellen Strale says. Her SUV shudders across a crude wooden bridge spanning the Rio Santa Cruz outside Chimayo. “One of the first things we did, obviously, was fix this bridge.”
Strale is executive director and founder of the Chimayo Youth Conservation Corps. “We provide an alternative to drugs, gangs and imminent incarceration, and promote our youth as a valuable resource,” she explained to me back at her office in the village. There, hundreds of photos of kids standing knee-deep in irrigation channels, building trails, harvesting wood, tending farms and helping senior citizens, look down from the walls.
Across the river, Strale stops at the edge of a planted field.
“Syringes covered this ground. They were everywhere. Everywhere.” Strale sweeps her hands through all compass points as she talks. “There was a burned house over there, trailers here, tons of trash. We went way, way up the valley to reopen the silted acequia. Now look.”
There’s no sign of the decades of black tar heroin culture that have ravaged Chimayo and other northern New Mexican communities. The people who once occupied these remote seven acres helped spread that plague. The land was seized by the U.S. Marshall in 1999. For years it was abandoned and cursed until Strale and her 125 teenagers and young adults got to work.
“The kids said we needed to change the spirit of this place,” says Strale. “Even though the land wasn’t ready, they planted crops where syringes used to be. We were doing great. Lots of chile and corn.” Then a herd of cattle from neighboring land wandered over and wiped them out.
Rows of broken corn stalks stretch before us. Chile plants have been trampled into the earth. It’s a sad sight. Suddenly Strale takes off across the field with her hands in the air.
“We’ve got us a watermelon!”
I run to catch up. I notice my suede shoes are completely covered in goatheads. I’ll need pliers to remove the tenacious thorns. When I reach Strale, she’s bending to the ground, brushing leaves from a small gourd. Goatheads dig into her bare shins. But she notices only the infant watermelon and the tomato cages and herbs that survived the marauding cows.
“We’re gonna bring this place back. The kids are building an incredible wall at the entrance. We’re going to preserve the forest along the river. It’s so beautiful. We’ll fence out the cows, replant and this field will take off.” she proclaims. Then we move on to view another Corps project where the kids have replaced an unproductive thicket of Siberian elms with a dizzying array of flowers and vegetables.
Strale founded the Corps on a shoestring in 2002. It was intended as a harm-reduction project to save kids from the drug culture that seems so out of place in these bucolic villages.
“We set out to reduce risk factors through self-improvement,” she explains. “We focus on self-esteem and self-concept. But also, in a sense, we’re training entrepreneurs so they can run the businesses that will help them realize their dreams, here, in their own community.”
CYCC uses environmental service activities as its teaching tool. At no cost to their families, young people receive training in landscaping, irrigation, traditional agriculture, carpentry, adobe manufacture, office skills, horticulture, and GPS and GIS technology.
Among the organizations’s first major projects, once Strale and her kids finished building their training space, was constructing the trail system at the Cerrillos Hills Historic Park. After other public lands restoration projects, like planting 40,000 ponderosa pines in forests burned by catastrophic fires, Strale and her kids looked closer to home. Specifically, they looked at “los ancianos,” the senior citizens of rural northern New Mexico.
Corps members, aged 14 through 25, took over the cooking, cleaning and repairs necessary to keep the doors to two soup kitchens open. Young people cut firewood for the elders, repaired fences and restored irrigation ditches. They saw many old farmers had abandoned their fields because they could no longer care for them. That led to the next stage in the Corps’ growth.
“In 2005, at the height of the drought, we took over five huge fields,” recalls Strale. “We had 72 kids working those farms. Frankly, we bit off more than we could chew. But we learned a lot.”
With the knowledge of traditional agriculture imparted from old farmers, and mentoring from super-farmer Don Bustos [Re: Profile, “Rock Star Farming,” Aug. 2-8], the Corps concentrated on the three parcels with the most fertile soil and best water. They rebuilt two acequias and are now turning those lands into perennial farms.
From the lush, wet plot they named “Los Abuelos (The Grandparents),” kids are feeding kids. The Corps built four hoop houses that can produce 200 pounds of lettuce and greens weekly. The bounty feeds children in Santa Fe Public Schools. The organization added raspberries this year and will harvest blackberries next year to be served with school lunches.
Called “Food for Thought,” this is the Corp’s first “Youth Entrepreneurial Enterprise.” Strale says it will be expanding to enable its young people to become entrepreneurs in graphic arts, nursery greenhouses and architectural statuary. Already the young people of CYCC have built an adobe plant and are installing their product at the community center.
The Corps has more applicants than it can handle. Most of its funding comes from public sources and private foundation grants. “But we’re getting closer to self-sufficiency,” says Strale, “though I’m realistic about how hard that will be.”
Some young people enter the program at age 10. Starting at 14, they are paid for their work. They receive above minimum wage to start. All of Strale’s crew leaders and office personnel came through the program.
The Corps is now so respected in the area that majordomos rely on Strale and her kids to maintain the area’s precious, life-delivering network of acequias. Strale and her young people have been designated the primary caretakers of El Potrero, a 44-acre Santa Fe County open space property that the Corps has restored to verdant pastureland. CYCC was also the first organization in New Mexico honored by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal organization that funds AmeriCorps and VISTA, and was awarded a “Next Generation” grant for projects focusing on conservation, community revitalization and intergenerational relationships—
Back in the office, a girl notices the goatheads piercing Strale’s skin. As she pries them from Strale’s legs, Strale remains oblivious. Out loud she’s running through a mental checklist of things to do, like the upcoming meeting with representatives from the Los Alamos National Lab who might help her add math and science to her program, or where they can get tools immediately so the work on the adobe wall at the community center won’t be delayed.
I look up at the office walls, at the photos of the young men and women who planted those 40,000 ponderosa pines where a forest fire had scarred the Sangre de Cristos. Those hard-working young people of the Chimayo Youth Conservation Corps are filthy, exhausted. But their eyes shine with hard-earned self-respect, and confident smiles break through sweat-caked masks of ash.