- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

“Volunteerism. It’s the thing to do now,” says National Park Service ranger Ed B. Petru. “It’s good to get some stewardship for the park.”

The park he is talking about is the Mall - technically, the National Mall and Memorial Parks - where his title is volunteer program manager and where last year about 3,200 people volunteered their time. The Louisiana Hiking Club comes regularly, he notes, as does a group from Marietta, Ga. The aim these days is to get the younger generation involved, those for whom, he says approvingly, community service has become the norm.

No one can expect a uniformed ranger to complain outright about the physical state of this precious acreage, often called - in capital letters - America’s Front Yard. Mr. Petru, for example, offers a careful explanation for some of the accumulated trash, saying it’s often due to busloads of lunching tourists who leave their papers and leftovers in amounts that overflow the trash bins.

“So they drop it on the ground and then the squirrels come and scatter stuff and so on,” he says.

Yes, but he doesn’t say there could be more bins and even, possibly, proper facilities, where the picnickers’ detritus could be controlled and with clean, well-tended restrooms available at convenient locations.

And there are, understandably, barren spots, weeds and other eyesores about the grounds that are said to attract upwards of 15 million or more visitors annually - estimates vary - and where some 3,000 permits a year are granted to user groups of all kinds who formally apply. There also is the fact that because of budget cutbacks, the deferred maintenance and needed restoration costs for the Mall total $350 million.

Helping out in a big way with these problems is the 10-month-old nonprofit Trust for the National Mall that seeks to raise handsome sums in the private arena for support. The trust’s chairman is Washington developer John E. “Chip” Akridge III. Caroline L. Cunningham, trust president, was present Thursday to lend moral support for what she called her organization’s first coordinated volunteer activity.

“Over the course of the years, we hope to have volunteers do this on a regular basis,” she says, “perhaps by tapping into many schools’ requirement for students to perform community service.”

“More and more people are starting to see how bad the situation is on the Mall,” she notes. “They expect a beautiful place, but that just isn’t the case anymore.”

Thus, the scene on Thursday cheered Mr. Petru and others taking part in a one-day operation to do some necessary pruning and cleaning. The trust partnered with the Park Service for guidance, but grunt work - amounting to a total of four hours primarily around the Mall’s Constitution Gardens area - was supplied by dozens of teenagers from the United States and abroad who had come to the District under the auspices of the nonprofit Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY) organization that aims to build citizen leadership at local levels. HOBY - named for its founder, the TV actor Hugh O’Brian - sponsors an annual weeklong World Leadership Congress that includes a Youth Service Day along with speeches and seminars on topics such as governance and technology.

Several hundred young people attending the HOBY event, based in and around George Washington University where they were housed, got to choose from a variety of Washington service projects to prove their mettle. Tools, gloves, bottled water and box lunches for the Mall project were supplied by the Park Service.

“It’s a very new experience for me,” commented Jenna Swiggard, 16, who attends a private school in Houston. “I just learned how to weed today.”

“There is a lot of trash in Houston, too,” she added. “This makes me want to go home and help out.”

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