A small knot of canoes drifts down a lazy river lined with the lushness of summer trees. "Wow, look at that!" whispers one young paddler.
"An eagle!" says another. "Look! Up there."
Down below, where the gray-brown Anacostia River snakes through a blighted pocket of Washington, D.C., it's no picture postcard. Garbage floats in the foul-smelling water, bottles and abandoned tires litter the banks, and a rainbow of oily scum bears witness to the pollution that has made the catfish, bass and perch too toxic to eat. "Everything imaginable pours into this river," says Bob Nixon of the waterway, which flows within half a mile of the Capitol. "It's a national disaster."
Against that forbidding backdrop, Nixon has made it his mission to give kids and young adults purpose and direction by enlisting them in a very straightforward effort. "Just because these kids come from serious poverty doesn't mean the river doesn't speak to them," says Nixon, 50, a former Hollywood producer. "Our model is very simple and very powerful: Let's pull on waders and go down to the stream."
LaShauntya Moore is one who took the challenge – and changed her life. Raised partly in public housing by a single mother who was then addicted to crack, by age 20 she had two children of her own out of wedlock. After her brother was arrested for murder and jailed, she was evicted and – pregnant yet again – wound up in a homeless shelter. Determined to escape that life, Moore heard about Nixon's group from a relative. Now 25 and ECC's program director, she has earned her GED, married and with the help of a $10,000 AmeriCorps scholarship, plans to attend a local college. It was structure, discipline and a newfound love of nature that made that change possible, she says: "I needed something stable to give me skills to get a good job. Bob believed in me when no one else did."