Chris Strobell's after-school job requires him to wear a heavy wool uniform and carry a knapsack that contains a plate, sewing kit, and last will and testament.
The 15-year-old Harper's Choice resident plays a Union army private at the Ellicott City B&O Railroad Station Museum, which offers a four-month living history Civil War exhibit that began last weekend.
"If you have a weekend and you want to do something, this is really the best place to do it," said Chris, one of several Howard County teens who have found an outlet at the railroad museum for their Civil War passion and a source of friendship and pride.
"I think it makes them feel special," museum director Ed Williams said of the teens who portray Union army soldiers. "It stimulates them to go out and read. It enhances their deductive skills. It gives them a real sense of self."
The exhibit is intended to show visitors how people lived during the Civil War in historic Ellicott City.
Re-enactors portray residents, merchants and soldiers.
Of nearly 80 re-enactors, about a dozen range in age from 5 to 16.
Teen-age boys portray Union army soldiers and give tours of the museum at Maryland Avenue and Main Street, answer questions from visitors and help staff a train garden exhibit during the winter.
"It's better than work," said Danny Gazaille, 15, a Harper's Choice resident who began volunteering at the museum last year. "I didn't really care about the Civil War until I came here."
"Doing this you couldn't learn from reading a book," said David Kusterer, 14, of Ellicott City, who has been volunteering at the museum for a year. "You actually wear the uniform."
Officials said students learn responsibility and a solid work ethic by being volunteers at the museum.
"They have this interaction with a lot of adults with a whole host of backgrounds," Mr. Williams said. "The kids see how you have to respond to the public, how you have to provide service and educate the public."
School officials say the teens' experience transcends the museum and gives them skills they can use the rest of their lives.
"You learn about being part of a team," said Leslie Walker-Bartnick, testing supervisor for the Howard County school system. "The interaction with the public really has an impact with them. They learn there's a lot of different people out there."
And parents say the program has made a difference in their children's attitudes.
"It's wonderful," said Janet Kusterer, whose son portrays a Union army private at the museum. "He's really learned to take responsibility."
Even when the exhibit is closed, the teen-agers can be found at the museum, sweeping the wooden floors, taking out the trash or practicing marching drills outside the museum.
"It's fun," Danny said. "It's like a big family."
Like many youngsters at the museum, Danny has formed a close bond with Mr. Williams.
"He's a big friend," the teen said. "He's not like any other friend. He actually cares about what you're doing outside this place."
Mr. Williams feels the same way about the young volunteers.
"They're unique," he said. "They're needed here."
To work at the museum, the youths wear a reproduction of a Union army uniform that includes a blue wool coat, cap, pants and thick-soled dark leather Brogans.
Mr. Williams provides a basic uniform free of charge but some teens buy their own -- one piece at a time -- using money stockpiled from summer jobs, allowances, birthdays and Christmas gifts.
For example, Chris spent about $870 on his uniform, which includes a four-button sack coat, military trousers, cap and a faithful reproduction of a 1853 Enfield musket.
At the museum, youngsters have to be at least 16 to carry a musket -- a treasured part of the uniform.
"That's like getting your car or your driver's license," Mr. Williams said. "It's a goal to shoot for."
The youths said the Civil War reenactment program has helped them mature.
"Before I joined, I was so crazy about [the war], but I didn't know much about it," Chris said.
Since learning about the war's hardships, Chris has a different perspective. "You grow up from it," he said.
They've also learned that their knowledge is useful in the classroom.
"We'll be talking about wars and the Civil War will come up and I'll be able to talk about it and teach people about some things," said Danny, a ninth-grader at Mount St. Joseph High School in Catonsville.
The program also helped the former D-student improve his grades and understand the difficult job classroom teachers face.
"It helps you out with teachers, friends and grades," Danny said. Teachers "are like the captains and corporals, and you have to listen to them."
And their classmates' reactions?
"A lot of them don't even know what I'm talking about," Chris said. "They've got other interests like hockey and music and sports."
Mr. Williams, for one, is glad that some teen-agers are fascinated by history.
"I can think of no better way to preserve our historical resources than by including kids," the director said. "This is a great way to preserve history, by passing it on."