An Interview with Leslie Wilkoff
This year, we at The Corps Network interviewed our three 2014 Corps Legacy Achievement Award winners to learn more about their experience and history in the Corps movement.
When did you start working for The Corps Network?
I started working for The Corps Network essentially at the time of its creation. I was hired by the Human Environment Center (Hec) in September of 1984. We started with three people and initially it was pretty slow. I helped run a summer program that placed minority high school students in natural resource internships. We soon moved into an office space with an organization that would become the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (NASCC), and subsequently The Corps Network many years later. Originally starting with State Corps, we began working with and helping develop local Corps. My job started to get interesting when HEC began to act as the fiscal agent for NASCC up until we got an official 501c3 designation for the new organization. An initial key piece of funding ($90,000) came from the Ford Foundation and was partially used to buy our first computers. I began doing a lot of work for NASCC and in March of 1985 we had our first national conference here in DC. The attendees were mostly comprised of state Corps Directors and new California local Corps. Soon I became assistant to the Director of Membership for NASCC, then in 1991, I myself became the Membership Director. Our first major multi-Corps project was the Yellowstone Recovery Corps, following the devastating fires in the park. Two staff members, one from the California Conservation Corps and the other from East Bay Conservation Corps (now Civicorps), were detailed to head-up this project, and it was a great learning experience.
What are some of your most memorable experiences from working with The Corps Network?
Doing site visits and talking to the Corpsmembers. Anytime you can talk to the Corpsmembers or Corpsmembers of the Year, especially if you get some extended time, you really feel a bond with them. When I first started working on the Education Award program in 2000 I had to do every administrative task associated with the program and I had a more direct relationship with the day-day details before e-Grants came along. It was always a great feeling to approve education awards for Corpsmembers. It just doesn’t get old. I also found it to be really fun to work with the Corps that hosted our annual conference before it moved to DC permanently. I got to learn a lot about how the Corps operated over a larger span of time, than just showing up for a site monitoring visit where people might feel more guarded about how I perceived what they were doing. I’ve also been lucky to attend a number of events at the White House over the years, including the announcement of the Points of Light, the day a plane crashed on the property, the signing of the National and Community Service Trust Act which established AmeriCorps (and shaking hands with President Clinton and Vice-President Gore). Each time was just as exciting as the last.
Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
Establishing our Education Awards Program without any prior knowledge of AmeriCorps, and eventually becoming so familiar with AmeriCorps that I have often been asked by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to participate in small select grantee focus groups. I’m proud of how the program has grown and where it is today. It was about 1500 people to begin with and now we have approximately double that amount of members enrolling annually. I’m also proud of the health insurance plan for Corpsmembers that I helped create with our partners at Willis in 1991. I’ve grown with the organization which is nice.
What do you think are some of the most innovative or interesting things that The Corps Network has done since it was created to help benefit Corps, test new ideas, and pilot programs?
I would probably say the Urban Corps Expansion Project. The goal was to establish new service and conservation corps in places where they weren’t located at the time: Miami and Milwaukee, among others. I think there were probably in the range of 13-15 Corps that we helped start, and it contributed to our knowledge over the years as we developed the “How to Start a Corps Manual.” While not all of the Corps survived, it really put us on the path to helping start programs.
You currently manage The Corps Network’s Education Award Program (EAP). Do you ever hear from Corpsmembers about how they used their award?
You know I don’t, although when I’ve updated one of our publications about non-traditional uses of the Education Award I’ve enjoyed learning about what some Corpsmembers have done. With our current Postsecondary Success Education Initiative, we’re pushing for participants to use their awards right away. Because Corpsmembers have 7 years to use the awards they’ve earned, it’s been challenging for CNCS to track how & when Corpsmembers use them.
If any celebrity or public figure were to become an advocate for Corps, who would you want it to be and why?
You have to have someone who really believes in what they are doing. It’s impressive what Bette Midler has done with her organization and Corps, the New York Restoration Project. I think someone like Whoopi Goldberg would also be a celebrity spokesperson who could really push our issues and get support. I don’t know why, but I think she’s very dedicated and gives 100% to something she believes in. When she did the Comic Relief shows with Robin Williams & Billy Crystal you believed what she was saying. If we were to get someone younger, maybe Lady Gaga? She might resonate with a younger generation.
When not working, how do you like to relax and enjoy yourself?
I really love to sew whether it’s quick crafts for instant gratification or working on a quilt for six months. It’s one of the few things that clear my head and without my sewing I don’t think I could survive. I just can’t stop doing it, and sometimes I even work late into the night without realizing it. I love making things to be loved. In fact, I would rather give one of my quilts to someone who will really love it than get paid for it. Each year at the end of EAP session at our national conference I give my hand-made crafts to the attendees because a) I feel guilty for mainly harassing them about compliance issues and b) they really seem to appreciate and truly enjoy these small gifts.