BEST Grads: Building and Starting Careers

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BEST graduate Michael Mendez, Conservation Manager at Bronx River Alliance.

BEST graduate Michael Mendez, Conservation Manager at Bronx River Alliance.

Bronx native Michael Mendez was working in a factory, printing out shipping labels, when a friend told him about BEST Academy. He’d always had “a thing about being outdoors,” so he applied for the second-ever BEST Ecology class, in 2004. He was accepted to the class, and threw himself into the training. He particularly enjoyed the sessions spent working with the Bronx River Alliance.

Immediately after graduation, he was hired by the Bronx River Alliance as a Crew Member, responsible for planting wetland trees such as willow birches and sycamores, clearing debris from the river, and removing invasive plants.

A year and a half later, he was promoted to Crew Leader, and this December, he was promoted again to Conservation Manager, a role that involves overseeing about 10 Crew Members and up to 150 volunteers.

The secret of his success? Hard work, great training, and loving what he does. “You get the satisfaction of the people in the community appreciating what you do. People come out on these canoe trips we have, and these events on the river, and they’ve never done that before. It feels good to give the community a connection to the river. Growing up, my building’s backyard was a basketball court and benches. I didn’t even know the Bronx had a river running through it. Now we’re out there every day, and we represent this river.”

BEST Graduate Pablo Villegas

BEST Graduate Pablo Villegas, doing facilities management at a green school.

Working on the river for eight years has given Michael a chance to see the impact of his work over time. “Planting a tree from a seedling and watching it grow 30 feet tall, it’s like, ‘Wow! I helped plant this area up!’”

Meanwhile, recent BEST graduates continue to find jobs in a variety of fields. Pablo Villegas, also from the Bronx, completed BEST for Buildings in 2012. He was hired to do facilities management for Avenues, a recently opened green school in Chelsea that’s part of an international educational system with 20 schools worldwide.

Villegas says his BEST training landed him the job. “The guy who interviewed me hired me because I was the only person to have the G-PRO [Green Professional Building Skills] certification. No one else has the training I have.”

Avenues has a philosophy of supporting personal growth for both students and employees. For Villegas, it’s a change to be on a career track for the first time. “I’ve learned so many different things and I can branch out in different ways. They really want me to move on, and whenever that time comes, I’m ready. I feel so lucky to have done the BEST training.”