Former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest Finds New Constituents in Maryland Kids

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

KENNEDYVILLE, Md. -- Wayne Gilchrest had come to the homeless shelter with high ambitions.

The former congressman was to take the shelter's kids out the next day for hiking and canoeing in a nature preserve. But first, he wanted to give them a refresher on some earlier lessons. He'd keep it simple: "Trees, rocks, bees," he thought aloud on the way to the shelter.

He pulled up to the cluster of motel-like buildings on the upper Eastern Shore, across the Sassafras River from Gilchrest's home and the preserve. He lifted from his truck a bucket whose contents included a robin's nest and a big knobby rock , plus a map of his former district, to show the kids where they'd be going.

The college student overseeing the shelter's kids, Sam Eklund, was with 10 of them at a jungle gym beside a cornfield. A kid with a blond buzz cut and a blaring radio stared at Gilchrest. Nearby, laundry flapped on a line.

Eklund made her way over. Gilchrest explained what he hoped to accomplish with his visit.

"And I might give the definition of estuary," he said.

Eklund nodded.

He said quickly, "I might be doing too much."

But the truth was, Gilchrest was thinking big. After 18 years representing Maryland's Eastern Shore and parts of its western as an exceedingly independent-minded Republican in a conservative district, Gilchrest was expelled from Congress by a primary challenger last year. Now the 63-year-old has settled on a plan for his post-political life: He wants to create a program under which all children in Kent and Cecil counties would regularly visit the 1,000-acre county and state lands near where Turner's Creek meets the Sassafras. In exploring the lush area filled wildlife and scattered with several 18th-century buildings and Native American traces, the children would received what Gilchrest likes to call a "PhD in environmental ethics" by the time they graduate from high school.

"These kids would have a deep frame of reference for the ecology and their place in the ecology," he said, laying out the vision in his truck. "You'd have an understanding of your own niche and how it can be compatible with nature's design."

For years, Gilchrest had been taking out disadvantaged or troubled kids who, teachers thought, could benefit from time outdoors. To scale it up, he figures, he needs two state workers and an annual budget of a hundred or two hundred grand. He's getting encouraging responses from state and federal officials.

Michael Harvey, president of the Kent County Board of Education, said the upper Shore was fortunate that Gilchrest -- who won students' affection as a teacher with tales of his peripatetic young adulthood -- was returning to help its kids.

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