While still in high school, Marilee Eckert felt a calling to help youth keep their lives on track. She grew up on a small horse farm in rural Pennsylvania, her free time spent trail riding in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In a nearby town was a well-known residential treatment program for teens struggling with drug addition. Books had been written about the program, and the stories of teens who changed their lives through the program piqued Eckert’s interest. She decided she wanted to be a change agent helping people improve their lives.
During her senior year in high school, her mother died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease.) Eckert started college that year, but was too distraught and dropped out before completing her first semester. For the next two years she worked at various jobs and struggled emotionally. Then one day she received what she calls, “a letter from God.” The letter was from the university stating she had been re-admitted and when to report for the next semester’s classes. Eckert had not re-applied, but the letter made her stop and think about her future. She returned to college, finished her Bachelor’s degree and went on for a Master’s in Counseling Psychology.
According to Eckert, none of this would have been possible without the support of many magnificent women who came into her life just when she needed them to help her along the way to her success. “I stand on the shoulders of many strong women who have guided me on the path I continue to follow today,” she says. “It is my responsibility to pass that on to those who come behind me.”
Eckert has spent her entire career helping youth develop their lives in positive ways. She taught children with learning disabilities in New York City, guided university students navigating the transition to independence and directed an inner-city youth employment program in Oakland, CA. During ten summers working at Girl Scout camps she developed her passion for protecting the environment and a deep love of the out-of-doors. “Blue skies, green trees and crisp fresh air make me a better person,” she says.
Since 1992, Eckert has combined her passions for youth development and environmental conservation as the leader of Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB). Eckert grew the fledgling organization into a $7 million operation that now serves hundreds of youth annually in three corps-owned facilities in San Rafael, Novato and Cotati. The program philosophy and structure designed under Eckert’s supervision supports struggling young people who want to get their lives back on track. Through this program, thousands of disenfranchised youth have received an educational work experience that connects them to their communities and teaches them to become voices for a just and fair environment. In the process, the young workers have improved Marin County’s environment, school curriculum, parks and open spaces.
Knowing that biological diversity is critical to a healthy ecosystem, Eckert applies that same principle in her organizational model. She initiated a charter school at the corps so that participants can earn a high school diploma. She instituted a formal Corps-to-Career program that tracks and supports youth for two years after they leave the Corps. She added programs to serve a larger and a more diverse group of youth, from middle school students through college graduates. Rather than being overwhelmed by the wide diversity of life experiences of the corpsmembers, Eckert welcomes the challenge of helping young people build and maintain a work community of mutual respect. This, she believes, contributes to the positive life transformations reported by so many corps graduates.
Eckert does not limit her focus to local efforts. She is a leader in the youth development and service corps movements in California and nationally, as well as a global visionary who believes that all our decisions and actions have an impact that ripples around the world. “Driving our cars here in Marin County affects the lives of people across the globe. Auto emissions are creating a hole in the ozone that is turning parts of Africa into desert. Increased droughts and flooding combined with the AIDS epidemic are decimating African communities, leaving millions of orphans in countries with no resources to take care of them.”
The awareness of this crisis led Eckert to her decision to adopt four daughters from Ethiopia, which she calls the most rewarding part of her life. “There is nothing more satisfying than watching my children flourish and grow into uniquely beautiful, talented and loving people,” she reflects. ”I have nothing but gratitude for all I have been given.”