- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

Samuel Jones says his friends just wouldn’t understand.

They wouldn’t understand why he rose before 7 a.m. each day to make his way to the Anacostia River, braving freezing temperatures as he zipped out over the murky water in a boat, jumped into knee-deep mud and picked up trash from the banks — all in the name of Earth conservation.

“Most of the time when you tell somebody about a job picking up trash, they wouldn’t think it’s a real job,” the 20-year-old Temple Hills man says.

But something about it — perhaps the chance to learn a skill before enrolling in Southeastern University’s criminal justice program, or the feeling of community — lures him.

“It’s a chance to make a difference, make a change in your community,” he explains.

Mr. Jones is one of 45 leaders enrolled in the Earth Conservation Corps’ (ECC) River of Hope program.

It provides at-risk adults between 17 and 25 years old training in environmental science and general studies skills so that they can train more than 5,000 elementary students and volunteers each year on how to clean the Anacostia River.

The 45 young adult leaders are among the city’s roughly 2,200 most disenfranchised, hardest-to-reach youths, says ECC President Glen O’Gilvie.

Many of the adult leaders begin as unemployed, high school dropouts in need of a General Educational Development diploma.

They have been exposed to drugs and violence, have undergone grief counseling to cope with the loss of loved ones, and at least a dozen who enrolled in the program have died as a result of street violence in the program’s 17-year-old history, Mr. O’Gilvie says.

“We’re attacking that, taking it head on through the River of Hope,” he says. “We’re trying to raise them up to be leaders who mobilize their communities.”

The Earth Conservation Corps program was created in 1989 as a national White House domestic policy initative program, but it has remained local.

The program’s three components include youth education, media (creating documentaries and educational films on Earth conservation) and recruitment of volunteers. Program members plant trees in the spring and do invasive plant removal in the winter.

The leaders receive adult basic education, earn their GED diplomas and receive $4,700 college scholarships.

Participation is fueled largely by word of mouth. About 180 youths applied for this year’s 11-month program.

This week, bundled up in outfits that resemble snowsuits, 10 leaders laughed and debated the species of video-game characters Sonic and Knuckles as their boat sped across the Anacostia.

They docked at a field where whiskey bottles, 7-Eleven cups, shoe pads, deflated basketballs and other debris litter the marsh.

Everyone agrees that the most unusual item they have collected is a Jacuzzi.

“Some people don’t believe it if you tell them. They have to see it for themselves,” says Latrice Shorts, 20, of Riverdale, as she a videotaped the trashy terrain. “We keep it visual.”

The leaders dumped the contents of several large nets and buckets into the hull. Within two hours they collected a ton of trash — a small dent in the 30 tons collected by ECC volunteers annually.

Veronica Fields, 23, says her experiences have changed her views on conservation.

“I kind of cringe sometimes, get kind of fidgety, when I see people throw trash,” the D.C. resident says.

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