An Interview with Paul McLain-Lugowski, a 2015 Corps Legacy Achievement Award Winner

An Interview with Paul McLain-Lugowski

This year, we at The Corps Network interviewed our two 2015 Corps Legacy Achievement Award winners to learn more about their experience and history in the Corps movement. 

Click here to read Paul’s bio.


How did you become involved in the world of Service and Conservation Corps? 

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where service was a strong value, modeled consistently by my parents. I pursued studies that would prepare me for a life of service, completing a bachelor’s in Philosophy, then a master’s in historical and theological studies. After four years as a community organizer with the United Methodist Church, then a member of the Philosophy faculty at Fresno State University, I became acquainted with the work of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission and was thrilled to obtain employment with this distinguished agency. After founding a shelter for homeless, runaway minors – named the Sanctuary, I was asked to head the formation of a local conservation corps in Fresno – not having ever before heard of Corps! At the time I had no sense of how prolific and transformative this experience would be for me, and the youth I had the privilege of leading.

Leaders in the California Conservation Corps were instrumental in providing guidance and resources as we formed the foundation for the local corps in Fresno. John Martinez, of the CCC, was a valuable and generous resource during our early days. Just as important were the early and enduring friendships I made among Corps directors in California and throughout the nation. Most significant were Sam Duran, Bob Hennessy, Ira Okun, Bruce Saito, Joanna Lennon, and Harry Bruell.  While the work was incredibly taxing, its rewards were so much more exhilarating than anything I had done before. Corps represent the best in models for youth development and are universally hailed for the results they yield. I’ve always been amazed that regardless of how much time an individual may have spent in the Corps it is that experience that is long lauded and remembered for the values and skills it taught, the friendships and bonds it made.


Who are some of your heroes? What did they do to inspire you?

My children are my heroes! They’re all carrying on the legacy of service in their own unique ways – as homemakers, law enforcement, fire protection, mechanical technician, Veterinarian, professor, and teacher – just think the impact they are having on their children, and their communities! They inspire me each day by their love, generosity, commitment, and vision.  They are my heroes.

Mentors have also had an inspiring role in my development, chief among them Joe Williams, the CEO who hired me at Fresno EOC. Joe was my picture of leadership, sophistication, class, fierce determination and hard work, loyalty, grace, and success. He had the Midas touch. Reverend Paul McCoy is another. Rev stood with me as Chair of our Advisory Committee for my entire tenure at the Corps. His constant encouragement, prudent guidance, smooth facilitation of agendas, and abiding calm through many, many storms – he is an anchor to me.

Others include Sam Duran and Bob Hennessy, my two closest friends, who know me like family. They were at the vanguard of Corps formation and legitimacy. They mortgaged their homes to make payroll. They got in trucks with crews, never shying from any part of the work of the Corps no matter how grueling or dirty. They won legislative wars we had no business fighting. Their lives were consumed by the Corps and the Corps is vibrant today because of their uncompromising commitment. Add Ira, Bruce, Joanna, Harry and others to that list.

My parents, immigrants who fled war, imparted indispensable values – hard work, determination, self-sufficiency, leadership, and faith. My grandkids are my thrill! Each so full of life, so curious, so accomplished so early in life. My wife incredibly prevailed over two serious bouts of cancer. She is the love of my life, my soul mate, confidant, sounding board, and business partner. She puts everything into perspective.

Deep appreciation goes to Brian Angus, our CEO, for honoring my work at the Corps, for our growing friendship, and for new, exhilarating leadership opportunities he’s created to turbo charge the work of Fresno EOC here and beyond. And I must add Shawn Riggins, my successor at the Fresno Corps. Shawn has demonstrated incredible grace to continue the legacy of the Fresno Corps; he reminds me of the importance of family, demonstrated so profoundly by his relationships.  


What are some of your most memorable experiences from working with Corps programs?

So many! Some quite humorous! Like frolicking outside all night long during NASCC’s Snowmageddon (late ‘90s) culminating with breakfast! Night tours of the monuments in Washington. And, of course the Dubliner, where we conducted a lot of late night Corps business J. Other memories: the incredible support the Corps family lent during the passing of my son; the amazing progress and accomplishments of our corpsmembers, notably Luis Chavez, believed to be the first corpsmember to hold elected office; our first YouthBuild grant (’95) which led to a transformation of our Corps; Government Education Days in California and Washington; the run of funding we secured in California, beginning with the doubling of the Bottle Bill, then Park Bond Propositions 12, 40, and 84; and CALCC meetings (vicious, frantic, entertaining, and productive)!


Which of your accomplishments as a leader in the Corps movement are you most proud of?

No one accomplishes anything without a terrific supporting cast. I’m very proud of the leaders I surrounded myself with; their dedication, loyalty, and consistently reliable and professional work placed the Fresno Corps among the elite youth development programs in the nation. Timing and a good bit of luck never hurt as well. I was very fortunate to work in a professional environment that lent me the freedom, encouragement, and resources to chase my dreams for the Corps. In retrospect, we planned a future for the Corps that went well beyond realistic because we just didn’t know any better. A lesson for our young leaders – think big, venture big before you recognize and are overcome by the minefields ahead of you.

I was honored to have the confidence of my peers to serve in numerous leadership roles, including a term on the board of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (NASCC), one term as CALCC President (state Corps Association), two terms as State YouthBuild Coalition President, and 14 years as President of the State Conservation Corps Institute (Conservation Corps State Museum).

We were profoundly honored by the distinguished progress of our corpsmembers, recognized by The Corps Network as Corpsmembers of the Year five of the first six years the award was made, and several other times since. The Fresno Corps was also recognized with three Projects of the Year.

Perhaps the most difficult of accomplishments was the visioning and construction of what became the Rev. Edward L. Swillis Neighborhood Youth Center, the headquarters of the Fresno Local Corps, dedicated and opened in the fall, 2009. The 66,000 SF $16 million campus comprised of an administrative/activity center, NBA-sized gymnasium, Vocational Training Center, and Charter School facilities was funded almost entirely by grants, while simultaneously maintaining and growing the existing operations of the Corps. Again, while the plan was visionary and bold, there were many who from the beginning and throughout the seven-year development period felt the project would never be completed. 25 grants to more than a dozen sources were written to fund the development while the cost of the project more than doubled, as it was constructed during the housing bubble. Anguish, long hours, pride, a talented team, and a commitment to purpose prevailed!   


Given your experience, what is the primary piece of wisdom you could provide to Corpsmembers?

Continue your education, don’t delay! I remember the first class of corpsmembers we enrolled in AmeriCorps. I was shocked that none were interested in the education award they would earn, that they had no plans for school, or college, that many felt they might not reach their 25th birthday. That revelation so moved us that we began a laser focus on improving our education services and to attract suitable talent to deliver these services. Today, I am so pleased with the academic services the Fresno Corps offers, with the quality, commitment, and number of graduates being produced each year. This must continue to be a focus of all Corps. Education is the single most important indicator of future earnings and one’s ability to move toward self-sufficiency. Education is much more than the content learned; it is the student’s association with others vested in the pursuit of skills for careers that bring fulfillment and prosperity. 

Surround yourselves with mentors and friends that help you learn and establish the life skills for a solid family foundation. Families are the essential unit of organization that impact the quality of life for a neighborhood and community.

Learn to budget and invest. Recognize that wealth is more a function of management than it is a matter of earnings. Live below your means and learn to become an investor. That discipline, coupled with time, produces a formula for explosive growth and prosperity. 


What is primary piece of wisdom you could provide to staff members at Corps?

I often told my staff that working for the Corps was a mission, not a job. Corps require undivided dedication to the needs and development of corpsmembers. Predictably, those who could not make such a commitment, moved on. The work was simply too difficult and corpsmembers will always quickly discern who genuinely cares about them and who does not. To those who regularly asked me about how the Corps might springboard them to greater career opportunity I always said they could grow their future at the Corps. Few other careers offer the kind of upward mobility the Corps offer. Corps enjoy strong legislative and funding support, they have the breadth and capacity within which abundant growth can and must take place. Working at a Corps is a privilege, an honor that must be respected. The promotion I got when I left the Corps left me lost and despondent for some time. I had fully planned to retire from the Corps.


Ten or twenty years from now, what developments would you like to have taken place in the Corps Movement?

I am so impressed by the leadership of The Corps Network and the Public Lands Service Coalition. At a time when resources are scarce, these groups, along with YouthBuild USA (the premier youth development groups in the country), have introduced new and innovative approaches to grow the Corps. While with fierce determination they protect funding that is in place, they’re now exploring avenues of collaboration with numerous related federal departments, with boldness and success. Weekly conference calls assure accountability. With such momentum there is no doubt Corps will grow into a much more mainstream element in a variety of areas including workforce development, education, energy, life skills, and family development. Corps in California have wonderful new opportunities in energy, with a Cap and Trade initiative that will make billions available for activities that address climate change and reduce the energy burden for our most vulnerable populations.

That groups continue to preserve the legacy of the FDR Corps is heartening. I would love to see the Corps recreate a 21st Century Corps with the appropriate scale and funding to help the large demographic of disenfranchised youth and returning veterans prepare to lead our nation. That this process is well underway now is thrilling to know! Leadership is always the key. Corps have always had strong leaders; cultivating the next generation of Corps leaders is paramount to realizing such expansion.  


If any celebrity or public figure were to become an advocate for Corps, who would you want it to be and why?

Doc Rivers would be a great advocate for Corps! One of my colleagues grew up with Doc in Chicago. Doc might be convinced to become involved with Corps. Oprah Winfrey is another, if someone had the connection to introduce us to her. I have tried to get to Kirk Kerkorian, President/CEO of Tracinda Corporation, an alum of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who was born in Fresno. He is 97, still active in business. I’ve had contact with Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame Cleveland running back and while he is active with youth similar to our corpsmembers, he is focused on the program he founded – Amer-I-Can. Members of FDR’s family may still have a passion for the Tree Army he introduced in 1933 and may want to promote the Corps.


When not working, how do you like to relax and enjoy yourself?

I’m fortunate to have a job I love, great colleagues, and the energy, and passion to enjoy it, so I spend a lot of time at work J However, with twelve grandchildren spread throughout California, all active in sports, music, and dance, we’re spending more time on the road, visiting with our extended family. I also have a number of hobbies and activities which I’ve enjoyed for many years. I played organized ice hockey until age 57, was the first Captain of the Fresno State University Bulldog Hockey team that still competes with major universities throughout the state. With knees and back less able, I now enjoy golf, biking, hiking, and fishing, especially with my son. I run an investment group, and control real estate holdings in several states. I’ve been invested in the financial markets since age 12, waking up daily to the ticker tape and new opportunities for investment. I enjoy teaching the markets to our Corpsmembers and have helped a number through difficult housing transitions. Philosophical discussions and lectures always interest me. Looking forward to much more travel. Originally from Canada and while attending high school at the New York state border, I became a huge New York sports fan. Love to get to the city as often as possible to see the Rangers, Knicks, Yankees, and Giants!