Stately trees to help build young lives

October 27, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

In the fading blazes of autumn's splendid theater, 15 stately white pines ended a century of life in Glen Arm as tree-cutters' chain saws toppled them to the ground.

But instead of being chewed into perfumed mulch, the old trees were trimmed, carefully stacked and transported by young hands unaccustomed to the work -- hopefully to become beams for their future.

Anthony Wilson, 16, Richard Valentine, 18, Taj Miller, 18, and Antonio McDougald, 17 -- lately of the rough streets of Baltimore and Silver Spring -- removed the logs, making room for a new 30-bed nursing facility at Glen Meadows retirement community in northeastern Baltimore County.

The logs were hauled to a Harford County sawmill -- with volunteer help from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. -- and then carried to the Maritime Institute of the Living Classrooms Foundation in Fells Point. There the students will use the lumber to construct a canoe or larger boat, a "half-hull" -- a small cross section of a ship under construction -- or some other project that tests skill, discipline and teamwork.

"This is making the best of the situation," said Ed Snodgrass, a Harford County farmer and ecologist who is the director of education for Living Classrooms Foundation. "This is a fine legacy for the trees."

Living Classrooms is a nonprofit Baltimore-based alternative education organization that serves students of all ages, with emphasis on at-risk youth. Founded in 1985, it offers 21 education and job training programs -- on land and aboard ship -- to more than 25,000 students each year.

While the foundation has math and English teachers from the city school department, "The bulk of our staff is pretty unconventional," Mr. Snodgrass said.

"We have two guys who built the two Pride of Baltimore ships, some successful people from the business world, a couple of people who worked oil fields. We are working for an attitude change as much as anything else. This isn't a touchy-feely sort of program -- we kick their butts."

Steven H. Jewell, executive director of Glen Meadows, described the tree-felling operation as "in one way, the price of progress, but a positive way to lose the trees. They are being removed so we can continue to allow our residents to live in a beautiful, natural setting and allow these young men to work in a positive way."

The facility, which houses more than 200 senior citizens, sits on 483 acres owned by the Presbyterian Seniors Services. The original building dates to the turn of the century when it was known as Notchcliff Villa Maria, operated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. But the teen-agers weren't concerned much about such history. Their primary interest is leaving a criminal past behind. All said they were sent to juvenile correction facilities after being arrested for crimes involving drugs.

All four showed promise during their incarceration and were referred to Living Classrooms by their probation officers.

"We've had our successes and failures, but working for the foundation is a great deal better than complaining about the world and its problems while driving around in an $80,000 car and talking on your cellular phone," Mr. Snodgrass said.

The young men working with Mr. Snodgrass said they are finding their nine-month course demanding and instructive as they learn to work with wood and build self-esteem.

"I want to graduate and really get out on my own and be dependable," Anthony Wilson said. "In this program, you have to show up every morning on time and if, like, you work out a contract for a job, you have to have all the words spelled right, or you do it over and over until it is right."

Taj Miller, 18, was incarcerated two years before his recommendation to Living Classrooms. He was found guilty of attempted murder after he stabbed a teen-ager who the Miller youth said had robbed him of his crack cocaine profits.

"I don't blame anybody but myself for what happened back then," he said. "But I didn't have money, the image to get attention and girls, so I started in the crack business and that all changed.

"This program has been a lot of help to me because I have acquired skills working with wood. And the point system is tough. If you don't show up on time, you lose. And if you lose too many points, you're out. When I graduate from here, I want to be an apprentice carpenter."

Antonio McDougald put it this way: "People don't have to tell me all the time what to do, like not stay up all night and sleep all day. I need my night's rest now."

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