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Meet Wendy Butts of LA Conservation Corps

Today we’d like to introduce you to Wendy Butts.

Wendy, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in Ohio and Arizona and studied Journalism at Northern Arizona University before moving to LA to explore a career in Advertising. I soon realized that I was destined to serve and joined the Peace Corps where I spent two years in Ecuador teaching the locals about health and recycling. I caught the non-profit bug there and returned to LA with my husband (who also served in the Peace Corps – in Uruguay) to find a job in conservation. I started working at the LA Conservation Corps as a teacher of the newly enrolled Corpsmembers, many of whom did not yet have their high school diplomas. We explored the 3 Rs and Southern California – with trips to the ocean, the desert and the mountains – in hopes of preparing them for their tenure in the Corps’ Young Adult Corps program. It was the hardest nine months of my life and I quickly developed a new-found respect for teachers. I moved into coordination of the environmental education activities at the Corps and then management of the program funded by the California Department of Conservation. I was working on my MBA in International Finance at the time and when I completed the program, I moved into Development at the Corps – first as a grant writer and then as the director of the department. I served in the role of Contract Compliance Officer for four years before leaving the Corps to build aCorporate Compliance Program at QueensCare & QueensCare Family Clinics. I returned to the Corps after a couple years away – first as a consultant for the Board of Directors and re-joined the staff as Managing Director for a year before being appointed CEO in July 2014. The last almost five years have been an amazing journey of both professional and personal growth. The best part of my work is my interactions with our Corpsmembers, whose strength and commitment is tested and grows during their one to two years at the Corps. I’m a mother of two middle school students – that experience has made me a stronger CEO and prepared me for the challenging work of leading this amazing non-profit.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Like many, I’m sure, I didn’t train to be a CEO. I’m learning as I go, which is part of what keeps me energized but definitely presents obstacles. I seek out professional development to ensure I’m leading the Corps as well as I can be but the challenges of running a business and continuously improving it keep coming. I re-joined the staff during a tough financial time for the organization and then spent a couple years strengthening our internal infrastructure. The last couple years have been spent reviewing and revising the framework that prepares our Corpsmembers for success in their Next Steps; I’ve been building and growing with my leadership team during that time, too. We’re a stronger organization now and are ready to take on some strategic planning activities which will present some exciting new challenges.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
The LA Conservation Corps is a youth development organization that utilizes conservation and environmentally related work projects to train our youth, whom we call Corpsmembers. Corpsmembers are underprepared young adults (ages 14-24) who come to us for a high school diploma and/or work experience and who receive wraparound services to support them throughout their one- to two-year journey through the Corps. Our programs equip these young people with life skills and work experience by employing them in a variety of conservation projects, including building parks, planting trees, constructing hiking trails and building community gardens.

The work our Corpsmembers perform beautifies the local community and many of our participants have the opportunity to work in areas they’ve never visited before. They’re readying themselves for their Next Steps as they progress through our programs, achieving both small and short-term goals that will prepare them for bigger and longer-term ones. Our Corpsmembers provide valuable community benefits to their neighborhoods and our partners – both public and private – and, in turn, they’re paid the minimum wage, earn a high school diploma and scholarships for post-secondary education and receive the support they need to continue to participate. We’re proud of the second chances we provide to Corpsmembers and believe the transformation that our Corpsmembers experience during their time at the Corps is what makes the LA Conservation Corps unique.

What were you like growing up?
I spent a lot of time with my family growing up. My mom and dad introduced my two sisters and me to nature when we were babies and made every effort to keep us outdoors – Sunday drives to new places, picnics and campouts in the local forests and hiking and exploring the mountains and opens spaces of Arizona. I was a good student but didn’t really have an academic passion; I struggled to decide on a major in college and don’t feel like I really figured out what I wanted to do until I experienced the world a bit in the Peace Corps. I grew up listening to folk music and my dad’s old rock records; music is still what connects us. My mom worked as a nurse and taught me what being a working mom looked like; she raised me to work hard and be adventurous. And my sisters and I grew up keeping ourselves busy and learning how to be independent.

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