Students, not ships, attracted to this lighthouse

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Shelly Strang, 17, smiled, a look of contentment on her face. "It's so peaceful and nice here," she said. "I seem to learn more about myself out here. I have time to think.The people at the lighthouse make me feel like I'm wanted."

The one to which she referred is the Beaver Island lighthouse in northern Lake Michigan, built in 1851, to help guide sailors through the treacherous waters of the western approach to the Straits of Mackinac.

In 1975 the federal government deeded the lighthouse, outbuildings, and about 65 acres of surrounding forest land, bogs, marshes, beaver ponds, and a strip of sandy, pebby, Lake Michigan beach to the Charlevoix Public School District on the Michigan mainland, 32 miles distant.

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For the past three summers, in keeping with its pledge, the school district has been restoring the lighthouse and converting the complex into an environmental study center for disadvantaged youth of pre-college age.

Shelly, who will be a senior in high school in Buckley, Mich., south of Traverse City, spent part of her summer here as an assistant cook. She was one of 92 participants -- dropouts or potential dropouts, welfare recipients, wards of the court, even two patients at the Traverse City State Hospital -- who attended one of the two sessions of work and study here last summer.

The project has been a cooperative undertaking by the Charlevoix School District with the Traverse City-based Youth Employment Training Program, which is funded by the Northern Michigan Manpower Consortium, a federally funded CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) agency.

The program is responsible for coordinating all federally funded youth activities in 10 counties of the northwest quadrant of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

Hence participants in the Beaver Island Lighthouse Project are drawn from that region.

Work, which began three summers ago and is now about complete, includes putting back in place the prisms that compose one of the nation's oldest lighthouse lenses and modernizing two apartments in the lighthouse.

One of these will be occupied this winter by Larry Koster and his bride. Mr. Koster is retained by the Charlevoix School District as caretaker and supervisor of final restoration work being performed on winter weekends by Beaver Island school students hired with funds from the youth program.

School authorities say that from now on the emphasis in summer will be on education.

By summer's end 15 miles of nature trails were finished and linked to Michigan Department of Natural Resources trails, which weave throughout state owned near-wilderness forest land. A public campground with its own water well, pit toilets, and eight tent sites had been completed on a wooded bluff above Lake Michigan and near the lighthouse. The old foghorn signal building had been converted into a laboratory and photographic darkroom.

In addition to their labor, participants attended classes and went on field trips focused on conservation, forestry, water quality, geology, astronomy, biology, and wilderness survival, all under the direction of a high school science teacher.

They receive high school credits for these studies.

"We stress outdoor, hands-on training," Mike Crawford explained. Mr. Crawford is the summer coordinator for the project. "I have seen lots of kids who couldn't make it in the classroom until they had the outdoor experience."

John Krieg, 19, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., who served as a crew chief and counselor, added, "Being away from their families tends to make them grow up. The ones with the wrong attitudes don't last, and there are very few of them.

"It's a beautiful place."

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