Enriching parks and self-esteem

At-risk teens find in nature a way to stay off the streets while learning skills and teamwork

July 23, 2008|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Reporter

Simone Collins smiled shyly as she wiped dirt-splotched hands on her limp T-shirt, a bead of sweat sliding from her hairline down her neck.

"This dirt gives me a sense of honor," said the Baltimore teen, her gaze switching from her hands to a newly refurbished trail at Gunpowder Falls State Park. "I, we all, did this."

Instead of sitting home, waiting for summer to end and school to start, 145 city kids are out at Gunpowder and at Patapsco Valley State Park, giving the landscape and buildings a little love. They say they are getting in touch with nature and gaining self-worth, not to mention a little pocket money.

This is the inaugural summer for the Civic Justice Corps, a $1 million project of the Department of Natural Resources aimed at helping at-risk teens. All of them are here because someone - a relative, a teacher, a probation officer, an adult down the block - intervened to help get them off the streets.

"Most kids are looking for a way out, and this is the first step," said Natural Resources Police Cpl. Junior Johnson, an authority figure and sympathetic ear for the kids at Gunpowder. "I didn't grow up in the city, but they've been telling me their stories. Wow. To be so young and have seen so much."

For many of the participants, CJC is their first encounter with both the outdoors and the working world. Their application essays are filled with the ache of young people who want more out of life.

"I want to be off the streets this summer," wrote one.

"I want to stay out of trouble," wrote another.

"I want to get a job, buy a dog and own a bubble gum company," a third wrote.

"Out of the mouths of babes," is the way Capt. Peyton Taylor, the Maryland Park Service official who runs the program, describes the applications. "They are very honest about themselves, and they're at the point where they have to make some decisions."

When the six-week program started June 30, each corps member received two pairs of khakis and a belt, heavy-duty boots, a day pack and a ball cap and five T-shirts emblazoned with the CJC logo. They were promised $6.55 an hour for their labor, plus breakfast and lunch and an overnight camping trip to Swallow Falls State Park in Western Maryland. In return, they signed a code of conduct and promised to be at bus stops each morning by 6 to be dropped off at the parks.

As they check in, they deposit contraband - cell phones and MP3 players - in plastic bags for safekeeping and line up for inspection, hat brims turned forward, shirt tails tucked in.

"Many of us had childhoods where we walked out the back door and tromped in the woods, played in the streams, climbed trees," Taylor said. "A lot of these kids don't know what they're missing."

As part of the program, the kids take a break each Friday to play in the parks, do crafts and eat pizza and ice cream.

When some CJC crew members beg to work on their maintenance projects instead, Taylor teases them, "No, you're going to have fun today, whether you like it or not."

Not everyone buys into the program. A few kids have been "fired" for infractions and not showing up.

"Anytime you're working with any kids, you're taking a risk," Taylor said.

If the kids need a helping hand, so too do Maryland's parks. Understaffed and underfunded for years, the parks have a maintenance backlog estimated at $10 million.

Armed with paintbrushes, shovels and wheelbarrows, eight-member CJC crews and their supervisors have been attacking projects with a vengeance.

At Gunpowder, members of Crews 21 and 24 are rebuilding sections of Little Gunpowder Trail and planting ferns to divert runoff and stem erosion.

"Before, when I first got here, I didn't want to work. Now that I got here, my attitude got excellent," says La'Shawna Weston, 15. "It's really fun to get on your knees and dig in the dirt and do something for nature."

A few miles away, Daniel Heggie and three other boys are learning to operate a chain saw, tie knots and climb trees as they improve Muskrat Trail.

"Where I live, you don't get to hear too many birds," said Daniel, 15, looking up into the green canopy at the sound of a mockingbird's call. "I thought it was going to be a boring experience. It's a great experience. You can't judge a book by its cover."

With CJC graduation on Aug. 8, the 24 crew chiefs are preparing midsession evaluations for each kid, outlining areas that need improvement.

Out on an island on Dundee Creek, where Brandon Lessner and his charges have been removing rocks and planting grasses, the crew chief said he's not looking for huge strides, just "little things," such as focusing on tasks and working together - skills the teens will need once they enter the work force. And he savors those moments that remind him why he signed on.

"Yesterday was my best work day. It was hot and the work was hard. But everything with my crew clicked," he said. "I don't know what it was, but I hope I have it today."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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