When Rhuedine Davis moved to her home on 42nd Street NE 40 years ago, she and her neighbors would walk through the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens at dawn to watch birds or stroll over on summer evenings to see the night-blooming water lilies.
But things changed drastically as the years passed.
"In the D.C. area, the parks are used less and less frequently by the residents now," she said recently. "People are afraid of being molested or of having their cars vandalized." The situation gave birth to an idea, one that would also give idle youngsters in her neighborhood something to do.
"I had been traveling in national parks in 42 states," she begins. "I saw park rangers and how helpful they were to people. That's why I thought a junior ranger corps could help bring back the joy of parks here."
She put her idea into practice last year by persuading National Park Service officials to set up a junior ranger program at the Aquatic Gardens.Aided by a neighbor, Gerlene Green, she recruited the rangers, mainly from families in the public housing projects surrounding the gardens.
Now, under the leadership of "Ranger Mac" -- naturalist Walter McDowney -- 13 youngsters ranging from 11 to 17 years old spend summer days and after-school hours as volunteers helping with tours, working on exhibits, clearing trails, looking after visitors' cars and learning about the park, a national landmark.
"Most of these children come from Kenilworth Courts and Paradise Manor, which house low-income families," Davis, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner from Ward 7, said. "They have good potential for learning, but if they weren't here they might be getting into trouble. Instead, they're learning about plants and animals and learning to respect the park -- and to protect it."
On a recent morning, McDowney, who grew up across the street from the park and learned about the gardens by "just tagging along with the ranger," briefed some new recruits and reacquainted some of last year's rangers with the park.
"Only about six kids came during the winter," McDowney said. "Now we have 13 regulars, plus one older boy. But he had to get a paid job for the summer."
The junior rangers -- all of them boys, although girls are welcome -- wear Boy Scout shirts with Park Service patches sewn over the Scout emblems.
"The Park Service gave us the money, but we couldn't find the right shirts," McDowney explained. "On weekends, the junior rangers pass out pamphlets and make sure that kids on tours stay out of the ponds. Later, we're going to help open up the nature trail, which is falling down because of storm damage. Mainly they come along on tours with me to learn about the park.
"In September, we'll have a Junior Ranger Day, when they'll give the tours. Some of them -- like David -- could give tours now."
David -- 11-year-old David Hill -- piped up to explain how he joined the Junior Rangers. "One day last summer I was walking down here and saw some rangers and asked what it was," he said. To show how much he'd learned since then, he pointed out duckweed, jewel weed, and a corkscrew willow, explained why monarch butterflies nest on milkweed, why you have to wash your hands after handling turtles, and how to tell tropical from hardy water lilies. At the same time, he picked up an empty potato chip bag dropped by a careless picknicker and netted a dragonfly for an exhibit.
"I used to be scared of dragonflies," he explained, depositing the insect in a jar filled with alcohol-soaked cotton balls to preserve it. "But they don't sting -- the buzzing sound just makes you think that. That's their way of protecting themselves."
Now it was 13-year-old Gary Scott's Turn. "Do you know why the sides of those lily pads grow up like that?" he asked a visitor. "They're from the Amazon and when they were in the Amazon, there was rushing water. The sides had to come up like that to keep them afloat. Those pads can grow big enough for a hundred-pound person to stand on."
Most of the Kenilworth Junior Rangers live within walking distance of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, but Tyrone Grissom and Gene Lake, both 12, commute by bus every day from their homes on V Street NW.
McDowney picks up lunches for the group from the activity center at Fort Dupont Park. He also arranges field trips to other parks and occasional camping trips.
"We have so many adventures," 12-year-old James Alan Franklin said. "There are lot of things to see and learn about."
Davis would like to see Junior Rangers programs in all the national parks in the Washington area. Burnice Kearney, superintendent of the National Capital Parks East, said the Kenilworth program has already sparked a similar program at Fort Dupont Park in Southeast Washington.
But while Davis is pleased with the program, she does not think the National Park Service spends enough money on the Aquatic Gardens.
"The Junior Ranger program has helped tremendously," she said. "Just this past week I saw several ladies sketching there, early in the morning. And on Sunday, I counted license plates from 40 different states. Even the people in the community frequent it more.
"This park has been neglected by the park service for a long time. I'm hoping that when they see that people are interested, and that the community is interested, they'll pay more attention to the park."