Some joined to help the environment. Others were hoping to learn something new. And most were looking for a way to earn money over the summer.
But all 30 teens and young adults participating in the Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth program found something they necessarily didn't come seeking — friendship.
"When I leave here I don't know what I'm going to do without these guys. ... We're like a little family," said 19-year-old Ellicott City resident Raymoan Clay.
"This job wouldn't be fun without them," 19-year-old Lindsey Nolan, of Woodbine, said about her co-workers. "It would just be digging holes."
READY is a summer jobs program in which youth are paid to install rain gardens and conservation landscaping throughout the county to help control storm water runoff from impervious surfaces such as driveways, parking lots and sidewalks.
Clay and Nolan are two of five READY crew leaders, each of whom oversees five other youths working on the installations. The crew leaders built two rain gardens during a week of training before all of the employees started work June 18.
The program, created by People Acting Together in Howard, a coalition of faith-based county organizations, is funded through a $432,000 grant from the Howard County government and run by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
To date, the crews have completed 18 installations, most rain gardens but some conservation landscaping. Seven are at Howard Community College in Columbia, three at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia, three at Franciscan Friars' Provincial House in Ellicott City, two at Dorsey Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Elkridge, two at Manor Woods Elementary in Ellicott City and one at Rockburn Elementary in Elkridge.
Together, the sites have slightly more than 100,000 square feet of impervious surface that is now covered with storm water controls. Without rain gardens and other controls, the youth learned, storm water runs on the ground, collecting pollutants such as oil, road salt, fertilizer, pesticides, pet feces and sediment, and filters into local waterways that lead to the Chesapeake Bay.
"I learned that dog poop doesn't go into the ground, it gets washed up," 17-year-old Columbia resident Melanie Anderson said, noting the animal feces contain nitrogen, one of the main pollutants found in the Bay.
Anderson said she wanted to get a summer job to help pay for her tuition at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she studies piano.
Howard county has dedicated millions of dollars over the past few years to implement storm water controls on county-owned property to meet state and federal mandates for reducing pollution in the Bay.
The READY program, which does not charge property owners for installation of the gardens, is helping the county work to address storm water runoff on private properties, one of the challenges county officials face in meeting the mandates.
The program is scheduled to end Aug. 10, but with so many projects left in the pipeline, the county is likely to fund an extension, according to Jim Caldwell, the county's storm water manager.
'Really hard work'
Clay's crew was out Thursday, July 19, digging up dirt for a rain garden at Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, in Columbia.
"It's really hard work but once everything is done, it looks so pretty," crew member Kara Schaffer, of Ellicott City, said.
Schaffer, 19, said she wanted a job to help pay for college. She attends Lynchburg College in Virginia, where she plays soccer.
"This helps serve as my lifting for the summer," Schaffer said, noting she has already become stronger.
In building the rain gardens, the crews dig up a few feet of dirt, most of which they use to create a berm to block water from spilling out of the garden during heavy rain storms. They then fill the hole with biosoil, a soil and sand mix that nurtures growth, and put in plants before topping the garden off with mulch. They also line the trench, the area directly next to the impervious surface, with a tarp-like material that absorbs water, and cover it with rocks.
The plants are what absorbs most of the water and prevent it from becoming run-off. Many of the plants the crews are using are native to Maryland, according to Donald Tsusaki, an employee of Alliance who is managing the READY program.
While Clay and his crew worked alongside another crew shoveling dirt at the interfaith center, Nolan's crew and two others were putting the final touches on a rain garden at Dorsey Emmanuel United Methodist Church, in Elkridge.
"We ran into some troubles because this site is a lot bigger than other ones," Nolan said. She said it took the crew about a week to complete the project.
Nolan, an environmental resource management major at Virginia Tech, said she had come into the job understanding the need to control storm water runoff, but she learned a lot more about the process.
"I definitely learned a lot because I was able to do hands-on stuff," she said.
Dennis Caulker, a 17-year-old from Elkridge, said that when he started the job, he knew little about the environmental effects of the trash he would not hesitate to throw on the ground.
"I didn't know how much I was polluting and all that," he said, noting what he's learned has inspired him to clean up his act.
Columbia resident Babette Newman, 17, said she heard about the READY program from her science teacher at Wilde Lake High School. So did a few other crew members who are a part of the environmental club the teacher sponsors.
"The fact that (the job) was educational and service oriented is really nice," Newman said.
Added 22-year-old Aziz Iscandari: "I've learned that (storm water runoff) affects a large, large amount of people ... It's been a great learning experience."