Teens seeing green in Maryland's great outdoors

Measure twice, cut once.

Morris Brown keeps that lesson in mind as he squints through his safety glasses at the pencil line on a piece of lumber, circular saw ready.

"Be careful," advises Kintaro Campbell, a member of his construction crew. "You don't want to start over."

The whirling blade bites into the board. A fine cloud of sawdust kicks up and covers Brown's T-shirt. A stub of wood plunks to the ground. The teenager grins. A perfect cut.

It wasn't too long ago that either boy could imagine he would be trusted to help build a shed at Gunpowder Falls State Park. Or fix trails. Or plant trees.

But that was before they were selected for the Civic Justice Corps, a program for youths between the ages of 14 and 17 that exchanges a summer's worth of labor in the outdoors for life lessons and a paycheck.

Three hundred forty at-risk and inner-city teens this summer are wearing the khaki pants and green hats of the Corps. They are at six state parks, including Gunpowder Falls and Patapsco Valley, earning $7.25 an hour.

"It's awesome," says Brown, 14, of Baltimore.

"We can go home every day and be dirty and sweaty and say, 'Hey, Mom, we did some good work,'" says Campbell, 15, who also lives in the city.

Gov. Martin O'Malley started the Civic Justice Corps in 2008 as an extension of the Maryland Conservation Corps.

The budget this year is $1 million, much of which goes to pay for buses to take the teens to and from work. The Department of Natural Resources estimates that the CJC has completed nearly $3 million worth of improvements since its inception.

"When you think about what we get back, it's a great investment," says Kristin Saunders Evans, assistant secretary at the Department of Natural Resources.

For 40 percent of the teens, the CJC is their first job. They have to learn to get up early to meet the bus, wear their uniform, call in when they're sick and work as part of a team. And, for many of them, this is their first encounter with the outdoors.

"Some of these kids are from rough areas," says Fred Banks, CJC's program director and a former admissions director at Morgan State. "But the first time off the bus, you see more fear in their faces than they show in their own neighborhoods.

"They need a different perspective. All kids aren't going to fall in love with being outside. But they need to see that there's another way to live. They need to know what's available and what opportunities exist."

Twenty CJC members are in their third year, and 70 percent of the teens from last year reapplied for their spots this year.

"They're so motivated and have such pride in their work. They don't want to eat breakfast. They don't want to eat lunch. They just want to complete their projects," says Capt. Payton Taylor, who oversees CJC and the Maryland Conservation Corps.

But it's not all work. CJC members go on a three-day camping trip, practice outdoors skills and learn to work with injured animals.

And they get a paycheck -- for many, another first.

"Me and my grandmother are going to sit down and have a discussion about setting up a college fund," says Jamal Burton, 15, of Baltimore. "This has opened a whole new door for me. Maybe I can be a construction worker. Maybe I can be a naturalist."

Burton pauses and grins.

"And maybe when I get older," he says, "I can come back as a crew chief for the CJC."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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