Forest Service field ranger* Irvin Barragan made a deal with his daughter, Angelleen: If she takes care of the animals, he’ll take care of the trees.

Angelleen wants to be a biologist when she grows up. The occasional mountain adventure Barragan takes her on in the San Gabriel Mountains—his stomping grounds—probably have something to do with that.

But nine years ago, Barragan wasn’t thinking that far ahead.

Back then, his goal was to have enough money to buy Angelleen’s diapers. At age 17, Barragan quit high school so he could make enough money to support his daughter.

A year later, he was in the L.A. county jail. A friend of Barragan sent him a letter describing a unique opportunity for the troubled young man from El Monte, Calif., one that would allow Barragan to work and get his diploma at the same time. Barragan didn’t know it at the time, but the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps would open his eyes to the outside world.

Barragan isn’t alone in that regard. Various L.A.-area conservation corps—work development programs that also offer workers the opportunity to complete their high school diplomas—have done the same for many young people throughout the U.S.

In addition to funds Coca-Cola has invested in local watershed restoration, the company’s partnership with the U.S. Forest Service has helped young Angelinos find work in one of the most scenic mountain ranges in California. For some corps members, it isn’t a reality they would’ve dreamed of in a past life.

We met a few current and former corps members during a trip to Angeles National Forest. They told us about what draws them to nature, and where it drew them from.

Irvin Barragan
Irvin Barragan, USFS field ranger

Irvin Barragan (25), El Monte, Calif.; USFS field ranger and former crew leader for the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps

How did you discover the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps?

When I finally turned 18, I was in the Los Angeles County jail for adults, and one of my friends wrote me a letter. He said, “You know what? I found this program (San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps) where you can work and you can go to school at the same time. I said, “Wow, this is perfect.” So right when I got out, I joined. I graduated that same year and got my high school diploma. After completing the program, I landed employment, but I had to quit because of a bike-to-vehicle accident that left me injured on my right hip and knee. The conservation corps asked me to come back as a crew leader that led to an internship with the Forest Service. I was kind of iffy at first because my leg wasn’t fully healed, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to hang with some of the youth. There was always one young man by the name of Adam, and he would always beat me on the hikes, and I would tell him to slow down and wait for me. One time, he lifts up his pant leg, and he has a prosthetic leg. And he’s out hiking! And I thought, I need to stop making excuses.

Nestor Espinoza
Nestor Espinoza, USFS field ranger

Nestor Espinoza (24), Simi Valley, Calif.; lead field ranger for the San Gabriel River Ranger District and former member of the U.S. Youth Conservation Corps

In school we learned about urban forests, and I took that word very lightly. L.A.’s a melting pot—a diverse melting pot. We have that same public coming to our forest. We have different cultures, and different cultures recreate differently. They receive information differently. Let me just kind of paint you a picture of where I work. It’s a Saturday afternoon. You’re on the east fork of the San Gabriel River. Dozens of tents, 30 people. Grandpa, grandma, the kids, the parents, the grandkids. Ice-cold adult beverages. Coolers. And a lot of trash. We usually get the “It’s not my trash, it was here already.” So if I can’t get them to have ownership on the trash, let’s get them to have ownership of the monument. Of the public land. In Spanish, I’ll have to say, “No ser parte del problema, ser parte de la solución.” Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. And it goes a long way, cause every single chance we get to talk to people, it’s a message.

Stephany Rojas
Stephany Rojas, San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps

Stephany Rojas (25), Baldwin Park, Calif.; San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps

I deal more with animals than I do with plants. But since they coexist, I have to learn about both plants and animals, because they need each other to survive. The predators need a lot of huge vegetation for them to hide to catch their prey. And then some plants actually hide the predators’ scent. So there are a lot of benefits of plants to predators. So far here, though, I’ve only seen a coyote and a grey fox. And an eagle.

Do you have plans for a future career in the outdoors?

I went to school for game art and design, so I want to try to bring nature to the gaming world. Try to make a game that will educate people. Like they’ll be playing, but they won’t be noticing that they’re being educated. And I want to educate about nature, about the animals here. I want to get them a little more interested in wanting to actually come here and figure out if it’s true, you know? Try to get them to get their explorer side out here and check it out for real and see how different it is from the game.

*At the time this article was written, Barragan was a field ranger for the USFS. He is now a firefighter working in the Trinity-Shasta National Forest in Northern California.