Ever since the Days Cove section of Gunpowder Falls State Park was acquired by the state in 1986, the land has been closed to the general public amid an effort to preserve its wetlands and build more lakes.
Forty inner-city schoolchildren have been assisting the effort through the Days Cove Environmental Education Center.
Last Thursday, 26 of the boys and girls -- most of them sporting blue and white "Save the Bay" sun visors -- planted trees, grasses, and aquatic vegetation around one of the man-made lakes at 2,000-acre Days Cove.
"This is hard work," said Clarence Jackson, 10, as he dug a hole for his maple tree. "I'm trying to work around these rocks. But I'll do it because it's for the environment."
"We're going to make it because I'm not quitting," said Larry White, 11, who planted 10 saplings.
A total of 130 river birch, maple, willow and silky dogwood tree saplings have been planted so far.
The participants in the Environmental Center are third- and fourth-graders from Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Elementary School in South Baltimore. They are bused from the schools to Days Cove twice a week.
The program, created by the Maryland Foundation for Environmental Education, began June 18 and ends tomorrow. The organization gained access to the Days Cove area through a joint venture with the Department of Natural Resources to improve environmental education and awareness.
Faye Lutz, the foundation's executive director, refers to the organization's year-old summer center as her "brainchild."
"I wanted to give these generally underserved kids the unique opportunity to learn to love, respect and protect the environment," Lutz said.
The center is headquartered in a huge white ranch house where the children receive instruction in geology, biology, English and environmental education from Tammy Holbert and Cindy Nelson, two Baltimore City elementary school teachers.
After the traditional classroom work, the youngsters spend the rest of their four-hour day exploring the land, studying the wetlands, obtaining water and soil samples for testing, and observing frogs, snakes, deer and other wildlife.
plant peppers and tomatoes and do all kinds of stuff to help the environment and the Chesapeake Bay," said Danise Gayles, 10, of Curtis Bay Elementary.
Danise and her friends, Larry White and Ryan Bates, from Farring Elementary, quickly note that Days Cove is a far cry from their neighborhoods.
"My neighborhood isn't really bad," said Larry, who lives in Brooklyn. "My friends aren't getting shot at every night, but we don't have any woods we can walk in or animals around there. We do have rats, though."
"Yeah," said Ryan, 10, who lives near Larry. "There's nowhere to go where I live. The kids who aren't here are missing out."
Faye Lutz said most of the kids involved in the program are exposed to limited educational opportunities and are from dysfunctional families.
"It is important to get the kids out here and away from the troubles of the streets," said Lutz. "Hopefully, all of the environmental knowledge they are receiving here will carry over and allow them to positively influence their family and schoolmates."
"This environmental center is so successful because it helps the kids make the connection between their personal lives and the Chesapeake Bay," said Richard R. Leader, spokesman for Chesapeake Bay Trust, the organization that is funding the MFEE program with a $16,000 grant.
The Bay Trust is providing 247 grants this year to innovative environmental programs around the state.
"The Chesapeake Bay Trust is committed to promoting public involvement in restoring the bay, and this program is extending that commitment," Leader said.
"Faye Lutz is not 'teaching' these children to appreciate the Chesapeake," he said. "That appreciation comes naturally once they understand what it all involves."
Jean Choma, a teacher at Curtis Bay Elementary, said the environmental center helps the children become a part of reality.
"They are learning how the ecosystems interact. They are learning the relationship between humans and nature," Choma said. "For those of us who were environmentally involved in the '60s and '70s, it makes us feel good that the kids are finally pitching in."