River of Dreams

updated 08/01/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/01/2005 01:00AM

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."

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."

Nixon, the son of a Chrysler executive and a mother who created the soap opera All My Children, has been a nature lover since he was a kid in Philadelphia, where he practiced taxidermy skills on road kill. "It seemed like such a shame to waste beautiful raccoons," he says. Set on becoming a wildlife photographer, he skipped college to pursue that dream. In 1979 he was in Rwanda to shoot a documentary about gorilla activist Dian Fossey when he inquired about making a feature film of her life story. "She told me I could have the rights if I did an environmental project for just one year," says Nixon. Three years after Fossey's 1985 murder—probably committed by poachers—Nixon coproduced Gorillas in the Mist. And true to his word, in 1992, after seeing a photo of the garbage-choked Anacostia in a newspaper, he decided to take action. "I couldn't believe it was in the nation's capital," he says.

Nixon flew to D.C., won a $50,000 corporate grant and began lining up kids from a public housing project to pull old tires from the river. "I didn't think he was going to survive—a white guy racing around taking these young African-American kids down to the creek to pull out tires," recalls community activist and ECC organizer Brenda Richardson, who says Nixon won over kids by getting them excited about the project—and simply staying put despite the mayhem around him. "It was like he had a shroud of protection—like a disciple leading them to the waters."

One of them was Rodney Stotts, who was 21 when a friend told him about ECC. At the time he was earning thousands of dollars weekly selling drugs. "I knew it was time for me to get out," says Stotts, now 34, "or I was going to end up dead." Escaping the violence wasn't so easy. One night in 1992 after Nixon overheard Stotts and another ECC member threatening to kill each other, he rushed to Stotts's Anacostia apartment, where he found him with a box of 14 guns. "I told him, 'Rodney, get in the car,' " recalls Nixon, who spirited Stotts to Nixon's parents' home in Philadelphia for the weekend until tempers cooled. "Bob Nixon is more of a father to me than my actual father—one of God's gifts to me," says Stotts, who now holds down two jobs, as a delivery driver and security guard. "Without him I wouldn't have made it."

Sadly, not all of ECC's kids have. Since 1992 nine members have fallen victim to street violence; one was raped and killed, another beaten to death with lead pipes. "It's completely crushing," says Nixon. "I spent every day with them and saw their talent and watched them develop. To lose them is just too much." Though he pines for his film career, the continued violence has inspired him to stay on with a larger goal: to raise $25 million to open an environmental-education academy for at-risk kids in the area. "Helping 40 of them at a time isn't good enough," he says. "In Anacostia alone there are 2,200 unemployed men and women between the ages of 17 and 25, and hundreds of them are on our waiting list."

Today, as Nixon looks at the river, he can take pride in the nesting ospreys and barn owls returning to its banks. But his greatest sense of satisfaction comes from the resurgence of another kind of endangered species. "Nobody believed in us," says LaShauntya Moore. "But Bob showed us what we could become. When I see our eagle flying above, I feel proud. If the eagle can come back, so can we."

By Susan Schindehette. Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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