Just a few years ago, trash blew and weeds flourished around the Flag House Court public housing project in Baltimore City. Front yards consisted of dirt and shards of broken glass.
Then the kids started to do something about it.
The Albemarle Street Summer Youth Project uses area teens ages 14 to 18 years old to landscape and to maintain a two-block area around the housing project. The program is part of the Baltimore City Life Museum's effort to revitalize and to maintain Jonestown, the neighborhood that surrounds the museum and Flag House Court.
"We're making it look better than it was," said Brian Kennedy, 18, who has worked with the project for the past two years. "I've lived around here for six years, and it's about time somebody tried to make it look better."
Perennials and grass grow where once there was urban desolation. The group designs and plants flower beds, cleans up area lots and yards and maintains everything that is planted.
Participants are initially paid $5.25 an hour and work 6 hours a day, 3 days a week. In addition, one day a week is devoted to a mandatory education program where workers learn everything from landscaping techniques to job interviewing skills.
"They are just a group of really intelligent, hard-working kids," said project coordinator Frantz Walker. "They evaluate the program and tell us what they would like to see done in their neighborhood."
Interest has grown every year, Mr. Walker said, and the program has swelled from a few kids the first year to 25 workers this summer. The museum's executive director, Nancy Brennan, said the program began in 1992 in an effort to offer job training and education to young residents while continuing the museum's agenda of community redevelopment.
The program is funded through city, state and federal grants and private donations, Ms. Brennan said.
One recent day found the group battling 90-plus temperatures as they raked soil and tidied up some of the residents' front yards. Project workers wiped sweaty brows as they toiled under a beating sun.
But not even sweat could dampen their enthusiasm and many of the laborers smiled when asked if they enjoyed their jobs.
"I like working with people," said Gerald Cooper, 15, who grew up in the Flag House Court projects. "It's my neighborhood and I wanted to keep it clean."
Gerald said keeping the area spruced up is just one step in changing people's perceptions about the neighborhood.
"It's always a bunch of negative things being said about this neighborhood," Gerald remarked as his eyes swept a basketball court he and his co-workers soon will paint and renovate for neighborhood children. "Now people see that the kids are trying to do something positive."
Crystal Palmer, 16, has worked with the project since its inception and said it has given her new career choices.
"I really like the designing part of it," she said. "And now I know I'm good at it."
Mr. Walker said the community has been supportive of the project and eager to see it continue.
"A couple of weeks ago a woman came up to me who has lived here for 25 years," Mr. Walker said. "She said the laundry area [a lot where residents hang their clothes to dry] hadn't been this clean in 10 years."
Mabel Keene, who has lived in the complex for 21 years, said she appreciates the youths' hard work.
"It's giving the kids something to do, and it's keeping the community nice," Mrs. Keene said as she watched a group of teens pull weeds in her yard. "They are doing a wonderful job."