Joe Ray, 21, stood on a walkway above the murky waters of the Anacostia River, where a layer of film and clusters of soda bottles and garbage floated on the surface.
"I guess it would be nice here if the water was fishable," he said.
Instead, he noted, the fish get cancer from the pollution. The birds that eat them get sick and spit out their remains in the Potomac River. And, people around him noted, the communities along the Anacostia have suffered, too.
Between the floating garbage and a drainpipe opening, where litter and sewage from the District enters the river, a row of plants provided a contrasting patch of bright green, a symbol of what Ray and his co-workers hope will become a clean, usable river.
Ray was one of the 16 Earth Conservation Corps volunteers from the Washington area who took the AmeriCorps oath yesterday, led by David Eisner, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps, a national service organization. Over the next 10 months, 20 volunteers will maintain paths along the river, plant greenery to remove toxins from the river and monitor the bald eagles that Earth Conservation Corps members brought to the riverbanks nine years ago.
Their efforts are on behalf of the young people from Anacostia and of Earth Conservation Corps members themselves, many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds and tough neighborhoods near the river. Program leaders say the volunteers often face tougher odds for survival than do the endangered bald eagles.
Since the program began in 1989, nine corps members have been slain, victims of random gunshots or stabbings on the streets and in their homes. Program leaders used the statistic to explain the importance of the dual purposes of the corps.
Having access to nature, a river to swim or fish in, can offer young people alternatives to hanging out on the street, said Brenda Lee Richardson, a founding corps member.
Earth Conservation Corps members learn environmental skills, take responsibility for the river and earn grants for college, offering participants a path to a better future, she said.
"It's hard living out here and being young," said Charles Thompson, 18, one of the new volunteers. Four of Thompson's close friends were killed during the past year.
Thompson now lives in Fort Washington and hopes to become an accountant. He attended Prince George's Community College. Others, like Ray, are working toward their GED.
Over the next year, volunteers will continue the work of corps members before them, who began cleanup efforts and, in 1995, brought four bald eagles to the city, nurtured them and released them on the banks of the river, five decades after the last eagles left their habitats on the polluted Anacostia.
New volunteers got a sense of the program's history yesterday in a movie produced by Twan Woods, 28, a former volunteer. The film, "Endangered Species," focused on the history of the river, once a community fixture where baptisms were performed until the 1950s, when it became one of the most polluted U.S. rivers. The film followed the corps as it nurtured the new bald eagles and showed tearful corps members holding pictures of slain friends and attending funerals of fellow members. Volunteers have named the eagles Monique, Bennie, L.B., Tink and Darrell, after their slain friends.
Corps members said they hope they can use conventional nicknames for birds in the future, instead of having to memorialize friends.