Urban Youths Clean Up

Conservation corps provides summer work, environmental lessons

PETER GEORGE, a 16-year-old Boston resident, gained a new outlook from his job this summer. ``I learned that Boston doesn't care enough,'' he says. For the first time, Peter cares about how his city looks because he has spent the summer working to clean it up. ``It really makes a difference,'' he says of the flowers he and his co-workers planted in various parts of the city.

Along with more than 250 other Massachusetts youths, Peter is a member of the state's Youth Conservation Corps. Groups of young people in six major cities across the state devoted their summer to cleaning up city spaces.

Funding for the program came from corporations, not taxpayers. ``The number of seasonal workers that we've had in our state forests and parks over the last three years has been cut from about 1,500 workers to around 300 workers,'' says John DeVillars, secretary of environmental affairs for the state. ``So we had a real need to find new ways of maintaining our parks and recreational facilities ....''

The corps members receive $4.25 an hour and work four days a week, devoting Friday to environmental education. Educational outings provide practical information about the environment. Among other activities, the Boston teens analyzed water from Boston Harbor and participated in marine programs at the city's aquarium, according to Anthony Pinn, educational liaison for the program.

``Environmental education is one of the keys to environmental progress,'' says Mr. DeVillars. ``The more people we can educate about the environment and help train to be responsible stewards of the environment, the further we will advance the environmental movement.''

THE Boston corps members represent a cross section of inner-city life. Quan Nguin is a 16-year-old whose family came from Vietnam to the United States six years ago. The experience this summer has given him a chance ``to get to know black people better.''

Most of the workers are still in high school and are gearing up for some decisions about their future. ``Unfortunately for a lot of young people in an urban area, there isn't a great deal of knowledge about the variety of career opportunities available in the environmental arena,'' says Carole McCarthy, director of SummerWorks for Action for Boston Community Development, the organization that administers the program.

Although they vary greatly in type and size, conservation corps in many states hire students for the summer. Twenty-six programs employ about 16,000 youngsters at a cost of $22 million, according to the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps in Washington. Many, though not all, target disadvantaged teenagers.

The Urban Conservation Corps in New York had close to 800 participants this summer. Through corporate and foundation support, workers receive the minimum wage to help maintain city parks.

Founded four years ago, the New Hampshire Conservation Corps has gained a reputation for its work on state trails. The corps is funded by the Job Training Council. Due to budgetary constraints, the number of corps members was cut in half this year.

``The shortsighted aspect of this kind of cutback in funds is that kids who get into this program develop a sense of direction and consequently are less likely to be on welfare in the future,'' says Bob Sandoe, director of the New Hampshire Conservation Corps.

In 1989, Oregon passed innovative legislation to finance its youth program. Revenue generated from an increase in the video-game tax now goes to the state's conservation corps. ``We expect to get somewhere between $800,000 and $1 million from the new tax,'' says Pamela Erickson, director of the state's corps. Ms. Erickson calls the financing scheme ``poetic justice.''

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