When John and three friends joined Earth Corps they didn't intend to lend a helping hand to fish. They simply wanted to learn more about their environment.
But when the junior high schoolers arrived at the Mystic River on a field trip to watch alewives returning upstream they found the man-made "ladder" provided to help the fish past a dam was broken.Some thoughtless youngsters were clubbing the fish as they vainly struggled to make it upstream.
"Someone told me they had once improvised a ladder using a wastebasket, so we decided we'd try, too," says group leader Stewart Sanders. "One of the boys got a big plastic bag and we tried to catch the fish and carry them over the dam.
"Pretty soon all the kids got interested in that, even the ones who had been trying to kill the fish. The fish were kind of shy that day, although we did manage to get a few [over the dam]. But I was really thrilled to see the fellow put down his bat and join us. We were only there for about an hour or so, but when we left, he waved and rode off on his bike."
When the massachusetts Audubon Society and community groups decided to sponsor Earth Corps as a way to interest young people in their environment, they had in mind what Adlai Stevenson had said in the United Nations:
"We stand together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on the its vulnerable resources of air and soil, all committed for our safety to its security and peace, preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we bestow on our fragile craft."
Projects are geared toward understanding such things as "fellow passengers of spaceship earth" (the basic structure of the earth), "making decisions among the crew" (working together for change) and "repairing our damaged spaceship" (making the earth a cleaner, happier, healthier place to be).
Right now the Earth Corps is restricted to Massachusetts, but only because of a lack of funds.
"This is basically a bootstrap thing that's catching on in various communities," explains Sally Sutherland, Earth Corp's assistant director. "We ask the community sponsors to give some financial support to their own groups, and we provide training, materials and program suggestions for the group leadership."
Activities such as the "100-inch hike" encourage close observation of the objects under their feet, and the "patience watch" has kids sitting and observing an area for several hours to see what changes take place. Other projects are more complex.
"We're really focused on helping young people and their leaders know their own communities, to look at the problems and the types of things that are going on," she says. "We want them to do some looking around and then identify a project within their own community that they want to work on."
One such project in Norwell, Massachusetts, has young teenagers monitoring public use of a local pond to see the effect people have on the area.
"There's a great deal of litter and pollution around the pond," says Faith Burbank, education coordinator of the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell, sponsor of the Earth Corps program in this Boston suburd. "We're doing our part to improve the area."
In this 12-15 week program there have also been field trips with a geologist to see the glacial formations in the area and to learn about local rocks and minerals. A marine biologist is helping out, and an oceanographer has also invited the youngsters to visit his project on helping to improve the quality of shellfish in the area.
"Kids at that age are ready to be out and involved in their environment and are getting beyond natural history. However, there are some who come without any natural history background, so we introduce as much as we can as we go along ," says Faith Burbank.
Sixth grader michelle Thorpe says she liked meeting kids from other towns and learning important things about nature. The section on geology was especially fun, she said, adding, "I liked the man with the rocks who could answer all my questions."
Ten-year-old Brian Spitz was impressed with the effects glaciers have had and enjoyed learning how animals go about hibernating to survive the winter.
Another group sponsored by a hospital school has built their own log cabin. What made the project amazing, says observer Linda Beres, is that the youngsters were disabled.
"You need to have worked with handicapped children to understand the immensity of that project and the amount of good feelings about themselves that the completion of the project generated," she says.
In Quincy, Massachusetts, Earth Corps members interviewed older people about changes in life styles over the years. Another group decided to learn more about astronomy and the solar system.
For one group of youngsters the biggest excitement on a nature hike was finding an old fox den and climbing willow trees. A couple of weeks later they instigated the cleaning up of a reservation area the had been used as a dump site for old shingles.
What a group does is often influenced by the interests of its volunteer group leader. For instance, Mr. Sanders, the alewife saver, works at a recycling center, is a member of the Mystic River Watershed Association, and for several summers has donned hipboots and gloves to haul trash and garbage out of local rivers and streams.
Designed by Massachusetts Audubon Society as an informal program of environmental education for kids ages 9-17, Earth Corps is also by design an after-school program rather than part of regular school curriculum.
"We've felt for a long time that environmental education is one of the most important things in a young person's formative years. There have been public school programs since 1939, but we're now finding it's more and more difficult to get communities to fund in class or during school kinds of environmental education. And it's one of the first things to go with budget cuts and changes in school programming," says Mrs. Sutherland.
She says "community schools" (an expanded version of continuing education or adult education centers) are welcoming ideas such as the EArth Corps programs.
"Community schools now serve young people after school whose parents are working, they give young adults out of high school a place they can go to continue their education, and in some cases serve parents who need preschool programming for their young people. I personally think this will be the way in which our Earth Corps program can become a part of the school system."
Since it is co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Aububon Society and community groups, there's no added expense to the school district. Sponsors can be church groups, environmental organizations or even parents banding together. Groups such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H Clubs and Campfire Girls are also encouraged to get involved with Earthe Corps, although Mrs. Sutherland admits Massachusetts Audubon is still trying to figure out how to fit the program into those networks.
She also adds that while some people consider Audubon Society projects more country-oriented than city-oriented, this isn't so with Earth Corps. One city-oriented project developed by Earth Corps involved monitoring a family's energy use to see how much could be conserved. Another included testing for pollution and measuring the amount of corrosion it caused.
"We don't feel that community action needs to be relagated to the country," says Mrs. Sutherland. "Urban areas are among the most needful of community action, and sometimes youth are the ones who can make things happen."