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Mobtown Beat

Green Teens

Eco-Mentoring Program Links City Kids to the Natural World

By Michael Anft | Posted 2/23/2000

Sandy Pumphrey's neighborhood looks about like any other aging city community—rowhouse conformity interrupted by decaying abandoned homes, smashed windows, and strewn trash. The never-ending motion of traffic on the main drag contrasts with the rootedness of the street-corner loiterers. Pumphrey's neighborhood is predominantly poor and working class, and generally there's not much for area teenagers to do—not much that's gainful, anyway.

Pumphrey, seeing that her stomping grounds could use some improvement, did what she could, volunteering at a soup kitchen last year, then latching on to the University of Maryland's Environmental Health Education Center, which had taken an interest in neighborhood environmental-justice issues. With the help of the center and another group, Pumphrey and four others hit the streets, talking to residents about their income, their health, and their problems.

Pumphrey may be 16, but her investigation into Pigtown's travails and its denizens' ideas for curing them may eventually help make the teetering community a better place to live. As one of the feathers in the cap of the 2-year-old Baltimore EnvironMentors Project—a nonprofit program designed to match civic-minded high school students such as Pumphrey with environmental scientists and other professionals—the Pigtown Community Health Survey embodies the goals of the national EnvironMentors group.

EnvironMentors was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1992 by David Rubinstein, a former phone-company marketer who grew tired of doing work that gave little back to his community. The organization concentrates on finding kids from troubled urban school systems across the country and linking them with adults who can help them learn about their world.

"Most kids don't get involved to become environmental engineers, and that's not our goal," says Whitney Montague, an environmental engineer who manages the Baltimore branch of the program. Montague says "five or six" of the local program's 75 participants over the past two years have decided to pursue environmentally related careers, but the Baltimore EnvironMentors Project's charge is to give average students from disadvantaged backgrounds hands-on experience in dealing with scientific and neighborhood issues. "Most of our kids like to help, and this is one way they can do it and learn at the same time," she says.

Many students come to the program with a limited knowledge of nature—"Their idea of a natural area is Patterson Park," Montague says—and many come from needy environments. "Most of them are from single-parent households or are living between several homes. Many of them are in the program because they want the experience they can get from a mentor."

EnvironMentors came to Baltimore through the largess of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which awarded the organization $500,000 in 1998, after it had taken root in several other cities. (The national EnvironMentors lists Vice President Al Gore as its honorary chairman and pro-football Hall of Famer Joe Montana as its spokesperson.) This year, Baltimore EnvironMentors' two-person staff has signed up 32 mentors for 40 kids from Northern, Patterson, Southwestern, and Western high schools. Montague says she and an associate have found "creative ways" to reach kids without home phones and to lure them to twice-monthly meetings, where projects are discussed: "We offer pizza. That usually gets them there."

Pumphrey's group, which includes three other students and four mentors, addressed parts of her neighborhood plagued with poverty, abandonment, and poor sanitation. Nearly 10 percent of Pigtown's approximately 3,800 homes were vacant. Interviewing 54 residents, the students found that the average neighborhood household's income fell $7,500 under the national average. Residents reported regular appearances by rats and roaches.

In addition to conducting interviews, Pumphrey, a junior at Southwestern, took pictures of exhaust-belching buses and trucks traveling on the area's main drag, Washington Boulevard, and photographed piles of trash—the result of neighbors putting out their refuse at the wrong times, she says, inviting rats, cats, and dogs to rip open bags and scatter their contents. "Whenever I talked to people, they'd say that things used to be much better here," says Pumphrey, who lives in a Washington Boulevard rowhouse with her mother and grandmother. "Everyone loved it when people helped others on the block and when they could leave their doors unlocked. Now, they say they're tired of the trash, the drugs, and the prostitution. Well, there's not much I can do about the drugs or the prostitution, but maybe there's something I can do to help with the trash."

Pumphrey and her group presented their findings to the Washington Village/Pigtown Community Council in October, then touted them before another youth environmental group in North Carolina. Now, she says, comes the hard part—"phase two"—when they try to implement their suggestions. Pumphrey says the drive has already yielded results—community leaders have enlisted the help of Mayor Martin O'Malley's office to organize a neighborhood cleanup day this spring, and a Pigtown bar owner recently closed off an alcove that was a repository for debris—but she knows it will take months of concerted effort to change things. "I try not to think too far ahead," she says.

As with their Pigtown peers, some other EnvironMentors students chose to take a close look at the environment in their urban backyards. One pupil at Patterson studied crime statistics, then matched her observations of trashy areas in her neighborhood to create overlays showing that high-trash areas also tend to be high-crime areas. Another has studied the quality of drinking water in various parts of the city. A third student looked at the impact urbanization has on the growth of trees. As with all projects, research is a collaborative effort between mentor and student.

But not all projects are city-based. Some students prefer to study salamanders, forest plant life, and other subjects more typically associated with the natural world. Patterson High senior Lamar Jackson turned a longtime fascination with lizards into a project. "I've always had lizards," the 17-year-old says. "Not that my mother likes it."

For two months last summer, Jackson studied the behavior of Australian bearded dragons at the Baltimore Zoo's Reptile House. With his mentor, Brian Dietz, a geologist with the state Department of the Environment, the student devised an unobtrusive way to view the dominant behavior of the male lizard. Jackson, who also worked on the Pigtown survey, discovered that male dragons nod their heads when laying claim to a female. For the diminutive Jackson, there was a pleasant surprise during the research. "A larger male backed down from a smaller one, who apparently was dominant," he reports. "I learned that size doesn't matter in the animal kingdom."

Jackson says he's learned more than that from Dietz, who says he has concentrated on teaching the student how to apply the scientific method, and from EnvironMentors.

"It's made me think about becoming a veterinarian," Jackson says. "Environmentally, it's made me think about keeping things clean and made me aware of what's around me. My school is surrounded by landfills," not to mention a Superfund cleanup site. "I know all that now."

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