River of Dreams

River of Dreams
Grant Delin

11/03/2005 AT 08:00 AM EST

PEOPLE and CBS's Early Show partnered for a five-part series, "Heroes Among Us." This annual series pays tribute to five individuals whose stories of courage and commitment, strength and compassion were featured in PEOPLE during the past year. This story's honoree is Bob Nixon, originally featured in PEOPLE August 1, 2005.

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."

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Thirteen years ago, in an effort to change the neglected Anacostia's sad course, Nixon took over the Earth Conservation Corps – a nascent nonprofit whose volunteers have since shoveled tons of garbage, replanted the banks and built a stone riverwalk trail. He and his crew also successfully reintroduced bald eagles to a place where they hadn't nested since the 1940s. And in the process, Nixon came to realize it wasn't just the river that was in danger but also the thousands of young people who live along its banks in one of America's most dangerous neighborhoods, where half of D.C.'s 200-plus murders are committed every year.

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."

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