An article in yesterday's Virginia Weeklies gave an incorrect telephone number for information about the Senior Environment Corps of Northern Virginia. The correct number is 703-549-1607. (Published 10/08/1999)

Senior citizens who want to volunteer usually find stints at hospitals, libraries and tutoring sessions. But a new program in Northern Virginia wants seniors to walk on the wild side--measuring water quality in streams, monitoring birds, animals and insects and inspecting ground-water sources for contamination.

Senior Environment Corps, a national organization that matches seniors with environmental projects, has launched a program here that advocates hope will create meaningful opportunities for seniors while providing skilled, free labor for environmental projects.

"Most of this age group came of age on or about the first Earth Day," said Peggy Knight, national program director for the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement, a private-public organization that has created more than 100 chapters of the Senior Environment Corps around the country since 1991. "They have a basic, ingrained notion to leave a better place for kids and grandchildren. This is more specific work than stuffing envelopes. It benefits their health as well as the community as well as the environment. . . . Demographically, it's a program whose time has come."

Else Elliott, an Alexandria resident who admits only to being over 60, said seniors want to improve the environment because they've witnessed pollution, global warming and toxic waste throughout their lifetimes.

"Our generation has seen such a radical change in the environment over the years," Elliott said. "If I went on a picnic when I was a child, we could drink the water in the creek. You wouldn't think of it today."

The fact that many senior citizens own or have owned property also gives them a stake in a healthy natural world, Elliott said. "Many of them have been gardeners and property owners and they're trying to make the most of their little corner of the Earth."

For two years, Elliott and a handful of other seniors have run an informal environmental project--they've worked with children at an Alexandria elementary school to create and tend a flower garden on school grounds. "Many of the children live in apartments or condos or places with hardly any green area, so it's gratifying to see the children take to the earth, to dig and plant things," said Elliott, who hopes the new Senior Environment Corps will steer more volunteers to the school garden project.

The Northern Virginia corps is one of seven planned throughout the commonwealth, one in each of the major river watershed areas.

Initial projects will include work such as the elementary school garden but will also focus on water quality issues of the Potomac River basin, Knight said. She said volunteers are needed to monitor water quality, pick up trash from parts of streams, plant vegetation along river banks and work with young volunteers to identify sources of local drinking water contamination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the Senior Environment Corps $5,000 for its first water quality project, Knight said. Other state agencies have committed some resources and funds, and the organization will seek charitable grants as well, she said.

The program is hoping to attract retirees with a professional background in science and the environment, but it will also train volunteers who have no experience, Knight said.

"The treasure of this program is in attracting retired professionals, people who have experience in the field," said Paddy Katzen, special assistant to the secretary of natural resources. "But training is a big part, too, so that we have very strict quality control over the information and data that the volunteers produce."

For more information about the Senior Environment Corps of Northern Virginia, call 703-549-1609 or attend the next informational meeting on Wednesday at 10 a.m. at 418 South Washington St. in Alexandria.