2013 Corpsmember of the Year, Brandon Penny

During his third week at Civicorps Learning Academy in Oakland, CA, Brandon Penny wrote a poem in which he stated, “Just because I don’t have my high school diploma doesn’t mean I am not smart.”

It has always been evident that Brandon is smart and inquisitive, but school was never his thing. Brandon dropped out of high school during his senior year after he failed the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and couldn’t receive his diploma on time. Failing the test left Brandon frustrated and discouraged; the previous four years of school seemed like a waste of time.

Brandon didn’t have a job to fall back on after he left school. Without classes or work to keep him busy, he started thinking about the future. He knew it was his own responsibility to get back on track, but he didn’t have much initiative and he didn’t know where to turn. Then Brandon’s uncle told him about Civicorps. From the description his uncle provided, Brandon thought the Corps would simply pay him to go back to school and finish his graduation requirements. He was later upset to discover that becoming a Corpsmember also meant having to work. Soon after joining the program, however, Brandon embraced the Corps model and began making real progress.

“I learned I needed guidance and, most importantly, I learned to seek it,” said Brandon. “Once I started to understand the Corps and myself, I learned that I could perform at a high level and be accountable. I knew that if I wanted something, I had to earn it.”

Brandon worked with a number of organizations during his time as a Corpsmember. He gained valuable job experience as he helped complete environmental projects sponsored by the California Department of Transportation, the East Bay Regional Park District, the East Bay Water and Utilities District, and the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. Brandon became skilled at using weed whackers, hedge trimmers, and chainsaws. He also developed a working understanding of basic landscaping and land management techniques.

“My favorite crew work was with the Alameda County Flood Control District (ACFC),” said Brandon. “I loved jumping in creeks, bucking down the pile, cutting down trees and trimming ivy.”

After about eleven months, Brandon’s supervisors promoted him to a Crew Leader position. This added level of responsibility gave Brandon the motivation and confidence he needed to finish his graduation requirements and begin planning for bigger and better things. He ended up earning perfect attendance awards for six consecutive months.

Upon graduating in December 2010, Brandon requested to be moved to the Corps’ recycling department. Jobs in the recycling department require a more specialized skill set and demand a higher level of responsibility, but that was exactly what Brandon needed. He didn’t want to be seen as “just another lazy kid”; he wanted to set an example for his peers and be a model Crew Leader. After four months of working on the recycling center sorting belt, Brandon was promoted again and became an equipment operator. It was encouraging to be trusted with using forklifts and front loaders, but Brandon was determined to gain even more responsibility by becoming a truck driver; the highest position in the recycling department.

“Once I was promoted I knew that I wanted to become a truck driver.  Now that I reflect on the Corps’ impact on me, I have learned to always stay humble and keep striving to reach my goals,” said Brandon “It took me about six months to get promoted to become a truck driver…Trust me, it wasn’t easy. I had to prove to my supervisors that I was ready for the big step forward.  I really had to stand out from all of my peers. I knew I had to earn the trust of my supervisors. I had to come to work every day and be on time. I made sure if I said I was going to do something, I did it.”

Now that Brandon has his Class B driver’s license, he can consider a career as a commercial truck driver. If he does decide to pursue a new job, he’ll be able to advertise his many hours behind the wheel of the Civicorps recycling truck. His morning collection routes can sometimes span the entire Bay Area; one morning he might pick up recyclables in the Berkeley hills, while the next day he might need to drive the truck to Pinole, over 45 miles away. No matter where his route takes him, however, Brandon tries to finish early so he can return to the recycling center and help with whatever tasks still need to be completed. He’s more than willing to take a shift on the sorting belt or the front loader if one of his peers needs assistance.

Brandon is conscious of things he can do to help maintain a supportive atmosphere at Civicorps. His actions prove that he is committed to always being a positive influence on his peers. He first displayed this commitment within a few days of starting at the Learning Academy. A fellow student started to get agitated when he pressed Brandon about an assignment, but Brandon maintained his cool and managed to avoid a physical confrontation. He reminded his classmate that they were both at the Corps to learn and should support each other in their academics.

Another instance in which Brandon looked out for his peers also happened in school. He decided that something needed to be done about how the math instructor consistently struggled to maintain control of the class. Brandon observed that his fellow students had trouble understanding the instructor’s foreign accent, so he offered to be a teacher’s assistant and help field questions from the class. Brandon’s assistance allowed the teacher to do his job and helped the students understand the course content. No other teachers or administrators were aware of this arrangement; Brandon helped the instructor without being asked and without any outside organization. He simply saw a problem and did what he could to fix it.

Brandon is currently enrolled at Merritt College where he is working towards an AA degree. He hopes to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in landscaping and maybe even open his own landscaping business. For now, Brandon sees himself continuing to work in truck driving and waste management. Wherever his future takes him, Brandon says he wants to make sure he always has time to be an active member of his community. 

“The most important thing I would like to be is a mentor in my community,” said Brandon. “I want to help the youth do positive things in life, like finishing high school, going to college, and moving out of the hood, just like I did. There are so many things that I want to do in the future, from being a professional truck driver, to getting married, to starting my own business, but most of all I want to be a role model. To reach my pinnacles in life, I have to take it one step at a time. I want to thank Civicorps for all the experience I have gained.  I received my diploma, became a Crew Leader and became a commercial driver…Without Civicorps I don’t know where I would be.”