Celebrating the tradition of American youth service

July 17, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Separated by three generations, Angelo Petro and Heather Tillmon share a similar turning point in their lives.

A self-described "reckless guy" growing up in Washington, D.C., during the Great Depression, Mr. Petro joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, helped build the Appalachian Trail and straightened himself out. Ms. Tillmon, 20, a high school drop out, turned from drugs to the California Conservation Corps two years ago.

"It helped me a lot," she said. "Since I've been here I've learned to respect myself."

Ms. Tillmon joined more than 400 Youth Corps members from across the nation yesterday in Laurel to celebrate the tradition of American youth service.

Joining them were Secretary of the Interior Bruce E. Babbitt and Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

The youth corps members spent the day working on the grounds of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Mr. Petro, 78, and a handful of Civilian Corps alumni attended to provide a link with the past.

"These were the pioneers," said Senator Sarbanes, gesturing toward the alumni. "We're passing on a tradition and . . . one of the finest heritages we have in the United States."

Preaching to the choir, Mr. Babbitt gave a brief stump speech on the National Service bill that is headed for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives next week.

The bill, which has strong bipartisan support, would enlist volunteers to perform social, law enforcement and environmental work in return for help paying school loans.

"You've got to help us," Mr. Babbitt, a former member of Volunteers in Service to America, told the cheering crowd sitting and standing beneath a blue and white striped tent. "Go back home, work hard, spread the word."

The youth corps members attended from as far away as Florida, Maine and Oregon for a national conference this week in Baltimore and the workday in Laurel.

Beginning at 8 a.m., they replaced a roof, built a floating dock and a barn, put up signs and took down fences. In a day, the corps completed work that would have taken two men about two months, said Jon Underwood, director of the Maryland Conservation Corps.

The dock was one of the more impressive projects. In less than five hours, Ms. Tillmon and a group of about 20 others hammered together a wooden, handicap-accessible dock for launching boats on Cash Lake where people cast for bluegill, perch and sunfish.

"You guys did this?" asked an admiring Daniel Padilla of the California Conservation Corps in Pomona. "You guys are studs."

Stepping onto the dock, Mr. Babbitt put his arms around some of the teen-agers and smiled for photos. He also took off his tie and white shirt to don a gift, a National Association of Service & Conservation Corps T-shirt.

After a box lunch of roast beef sandwiches, fried chicken and pasta salad, Mr. Petro regaled youth corps members and other guests with tales of the Appalachian Trail. Unable to find work during the Depression, he headed to the Shenandoah Valley at age 17 to become a water boy for those building the trail. He described carrying 11 full canteens at a time up and down the mountains in the hot sun.

"Today, my family, your family . . . are using that trail," he said.

Youth corps operate around the nation providing paid full-time jobs and leadership skills to youths roughly age 16 to 23.

The majority of youth corps workers are at risk of not succeeding educationally and economically.

But not everyone on hand fit that description yesterday.

Arthur Rave, a 19-year-old political science major at Cleveland State University, hopes to use some of the skills he's learned to run his own construction business. After that, he plans to run for Congress.

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