Service group helps troubled youth clean river, get education

Behind the monuments of marble that tower in the D.C. sky lies the Capitol City’s dirty secret. D.C.’s Anacosita River is clogged with literally tons of trash, sewage, tires and shopping carts, and is surrounded by communities ravaged by crime and poverty. But the Earth Conservation Corps is on a mission to change both.

Founded in 1989 by Bob Nixon, a Hollywood movie producer and nature enthusiast, the group employs at-risk youths ages 17 to 25 to clean up their local river and further their education. All Corps members have come from Wards 6, 7 and 8 in Northeast and Southeast. All the volunteers so far have been black, and this year one Hispanic female is part of the group.

“We’re definitely breaking down barriers of misconception that African Americans don’t care about the environment,” said Glen O’Gilvie, president and CEO of the group.

Some participants have children of their own, some are former drug dealers and some were involved in gang activity.

“When we initially started, we had kids no one else wanted to work with,” said Brenda Richardson, secretary of the Corps Board of Directors.

Today, the program, affiliated with the government service group AmeriCorps, cannot accommodate the number people who want to become Earth Conservation Corps members. About 180 neighborhood youths applied for the 45 slots determined by public funding and private donations.

O’Gilvie said it’s difficult knowing that there are so many young people who want his organization’s help, but not enough dollars to help them all.

Each member logs 1,700 hours of labor over the course of the 11-month program in one of four specified fields committed to cleaning and maintaining the river.

The members also attend mandatory GED training courses or adult basic education sessions that prepare them for life after they graduate from the program. Upon completion of their term, they are awarded a $4,700 college scholarship.

Today, 88 percent of the 300 graduates have gone on to higher education, leaders of the group said.

“We really want to take people who are ready to make a change,” said Jilla Smith, ECC’s development director.

And that change requires hard work. Corps members spend six days a week at the program’s center either in class, involved in specified projects or out in the water hauling debris. Thirty tons of garbage havebeen removed annually from the Anacostia River by the Corps, group leaders said, and the group successfully reintroduced a bald eagle into the area in 1995, bringing back an icon that had been absent from the area since the 1940s.

For Charles Stotts, 18, the Corps is almost a family tradition. Stotts graduated from high school last year and is following in the footsteps of his uncle, Rodney, a member of the 1992 group. His uncle, a former drug dealer, wanted out of the lifestyle; he encouraged Charles to apply and now Charles is working toward his scholarship, hoping to attend college in Arkansas.

“It’s an opportunity to do whatever you want (with your life). The people are willing to help you,” Charles Stotts said.

“Everyone – they say I’m responsible now,” he added.

ECC’s influence also goes beyond the banks of the river. Corps members travel to elementary schools preaching the benefits of a healthier environment, have built alliances with other area community groups and recruited about 3,600 volunteers from D.C. who aren’t permanent group members for projects.

Yet after 13 years of work, there is still plenty to be done. The D.C. sewage system still backs up into the Anacostia when it rains; the majority of the fish have tumors, the water is murky and brown at best; and the river is still one of the four most toxic bodies flowing into the Chesapeake, group leaders said.

“Quite frankly, (the community) hasn’t given the environment a thought,” Smith said.

The surrounding neighborhoods – the homes of Corps members – are also in trouble too. Unemployment rates are upward of 20 percent, while the poverty rate is about 30 percent, and half of D.C.’s 200-plus murders a year occur in Wards 6, 7 and 8. Since 1992, nine Corps members have been killed either in shootings, stabbings or beatings.

But the Corps doesn’t plan to give up any time soon. They have been approached by other cities to begin similar projects around the country, but the timing isn’t quite right, Richardson said.

He said, “We’ve got too much work to do here.”

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