* In Southeast Washington, a nonprofit organization called the Earth Conservation Corps offers inner-city youths an exchange: If the young people work hard on the ailing Anacostia River, the corps will supply them with 11 months of training, a college scholarship and a stipend. Along the way, the bald eagle might be saved. So might a few troubled young people.
The alarm clock buzzes nearly two hours before sunrise in Roshawn Thompson's world. Only three hours have passed since she finally climbed into bed. Her 16-month-old son, DeQuan, is fast asleep. His wheezing, brought on by asthma, is just a whisper now.
Mother and son didn't get home from Children's Hospital until about 1:30 this morning. They had gone there almost immediately after Roshawn picked him up from the babysitter--an elderly church mother who is also her pastor's wife. DeQuan was having trouble breathing. His chest moved laboriously up and down, his breathing as rough as sandpaper. Twenty-two and scared, Roshawn scooped up "Shorty," as she sometimes calls her baby, and carried him in her arms six blocks to the emergency room.
Doctors hooked him up to oxygen. Eventually, DeQuan's breathing improved. But by the time the X-rays were done and her baby released with a prescription, it was after midnight. The man she calls "my baby's father," a man with whom her relationship is on and off, gave them a ride home. But Roshawn had trouble resting. Morning calls.
She throws off the burgundy quilt and climbs out of her queen-size bed. Her bare feet plant into the warm pink carpet. She saunters over to the dresser and punches off the alarm. The red digital letters read 5:00. It is still dead out. But there will be signs of life soon, the footsteps of working mothers echoing in the predawn darkness. Each weekday morning, Roshawn catches the bus to take her son to the babysitter's before going on to the Earth Conservation Corps to pull an eight-hour shift of dirty, strenuous, outdoor labor.
Roshawn joined the corps in January. A high school dropout, she hopes to earn her general equivalency diploma and a scholarship to college to study computers. But the corps' promise is conditional.
If she is going to work today, she needs to be out the door in 45 minutes. She is due at the corps by 7:45. Corps rules dictate that at 8:01, stragglers will be sent packing without pay. A tough lesson in respect and responsibility in the real world.
When Roshawn started at the corps in January, she had trouble with the woman who took care of DeQuan while she worked. Child care didn't start until 7. That meant Roshawn was late almost every day. And every day, her supervisors had the same response: "Come back tomorrow!"
It seemed unfair. It wasn't her fault about the child care. After all, she couldn't take DeQuan to work with her. Sure, she had promised to abide by corps rules, signing a letter of commitment required of new recruits. But doing it was something else, especially in light of her circumstances. Maybe she should quit.
She had before. When things seemed hard in high school a few years ago, Roshawn stopped going. For years, she hadn't exactly taken school seriously. When she finally did, she found herself sitting in classes with students two years younger. Frustrated and ashamed, she dropped out.
Things are different now. She has someone other than herself to think about. Life is about "my son. My son and me getting through the program," Roshawn said. "I don't get no sleep. But that's all about responsibility, too."
At home this spring morning, it turns 6 o'clock. Roshawn is running late. She rushes out of the house, into the cold air, holding her sleeping son to her chest, a receiving blanket on one arm and a backpack strapped to her shoulders.
She hurries out the brown iron gate, hoping to redeem the time.
Roshawn crosses the same bridge every morning.
She turns left onto Kenilworth Avenue, walks across a field, over a pedestrian bridge and finally into the mouth of the Minnesota Avenue Metro station. It is about a five-block walk with her 25-pound load. She has gotten used to it. She folds both arms over her child, who rests his head on her chest.
It's funny, but when she was growing up, no one ever thought she would have kids. Not Roshawn-the-Tomboy, who climbed trees and played ball with the boys.
Now, Roshawn-the-Mom hurries through the subway station toward her bus. She checks the clock. 6:17. Oh no!
At the top of the escalator, Roshawn spots the X-2 bus, idling across the lot. She starts to run. The bus begins to crawl away, but then the driver spots her. A moment of grace: He waits. Roshawn climbs aboard. The bus is filled with women with 9-to-5 faces, a few of them shuttling small children to day care or school. Familiar faces.
Roshawn and DeQuan find a seat. A friendly round woman whom Roshawn sees most mornings notices that DeQuan seems lethargic. "He got a cold?" the woman asks.
"Asthma," Roshawn responds, wiping his nose, then greasing his lips with a balm.
The child closes his eyes. Roshawn sinks into the vinyl blue seat, her day just begun. But on time.
A hard rap on the babysitter's door.
It finally swings open. Roshawn rushes inside, sits DeQuan on a sofa. She takes off DeQuan's cap and jacket, then hands him a cup of milk.
"Give me a kiss," she begs softly. "Give me a kiss."
Roshawn walks toward the door. She turns for one last look at her baby before leaving. "See you later."
She walks back to a bus stop. Finally, the bus arrives, her third of the morning. Roshawn's hands are free now, except for a bottle of iced tea that she bought at a gas station along with a bag of Skittles. Breakfast. The bus rumbles toward the job.
Finally, the bus arrives at the gate of the Navy Yard, Earth Conservation Corps' temporary headquarters. It's about 7:30. Roshawn has 15 minutes to get to the office. Plenty of time.
She follows the trail of corps workers through the front gates to the guardhouse, where a uniformed officer checks IDs. Then she stops suddenly.
It can't be.
In her haste, she has forgotten her bag with her ID. Without it, the stone-faced guard refuses to allow Roshawn on the premises. She stands at the gate, hurt, embarrassed. She would be late after all.
Roshawn looks as if she might cry when one of her co-workers, Ronnie Rice, walks up. She explains, and Ronnie looks on sympathetically, but he has to be on time, too, or he'll be sent home. He heads toward the office.
"Tell Reggie I have to go back home and get my ID," Roshawn calls out.
She turns and walks back toward the gate, then to the bus stop. Maybe her supervisors will understand this time. Maybe not.
"I've seen people who I thought would have been here, and she outlasted them," supervisor Rodney Stotts would say later. "The only way I don't see Roshawn making it is if Roshawn just gives up."
The bus arrives. Roshawn quietly climbs on board and settles in for the long ride back home. She looks a little tired.
But she'll be back.
Tomorrow: Thirty-three funerals and a commitment to life.
CAPTION: Top, Roshawn Thompson, 22, cradles her son, 16-month-old DeQuan, on a crowded bus as they travel home. Above, Roshawn picks up DeQuan from the babysitter's house after working an eight-hour shift of outdoor labor for the Earth Conservation Corps, a nonprofit organization that provides young people with a scholarship in exchange for work.
CAPTION: Roshawn Thompson, center, joins a bucket brigade with Dania Herring, left, and Christopher Williams to haul water from the Anacostia River to newly planted trees along the riverbank.