On a steamy day along the garbage-strewn banks of the Anacostia River, in a part of the capital that used to be dismissed as crime-ridden and useless, LaVette Spears, 21, perches a majestic four-pound Eurasian Eagle-owl named Mr. Hoots on her tattooed arm.
His spiky talons grip her protective glove. His giant yellow eyes glow. His limber neck rotates. LaVette holds steady.
“Where have you been my whole life?” she jokes with the 13-year-old owl.
She follows Mr. Hoots’s eyes to a jigsaw puzzle of water bottles, soda cans and plastic bags floating above brown water. It smells sharp and hot, like a garbage can upended in the steamy heat.
“Oh, that’s bad; that’s just sad,” says Spears. “It’s crazy that I used to care less, throw my own trash here. Now, we have to get on it, clean it up for Mr. Hoots. Clean it up for the neighborhood.”
Parts of the Anacostia River may be ugly, but not to Spears. Last year, she had a job working for Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), a nonprofit group that trains endangered young people to help an endangered river.
The corps members — unemployed youths who live in some of the poorest communities along the river — have collected more than 600 bags of trash in the past year, educated hundreds of students and adults about the river, and planted 54 trees.
For Spears, who had been adrift since dropping out of high school, the work provided a much-needed sense of purpose. She learned to carry Mr. Hoots into classrooms around the Washington region, where students looked on in awe. She was surprised at first, then proud when she was able to speak to audiences with confidence about the giant owl on her arm and about the tributary that helps sustain him.
It also changed her perception of the Anacostia, giving her a profound connection to the beleaguered river.
What was once an eyesore filled with “needles and old TVs” became a treasure: “Everything changed,” she says. “It was like a shot in the head. I realized I needed that river.”
Just over a decade ago, it was a different body of water that pushed Spears to grow.
There was a family reunion. It was held under the trees and alongside a pool in rural Virginia, far from the rowhouses and bulletproof carryouts of Spears’s Southeast Washington neighborhood.
That day, the sun’s strong heat made Spears’s skin feel hot, like she was “microwaved.” Her teenage cousins were all jumping into the water. Spears, just 10, followed. But she didn’t know how to swim. And while her relatives splashed around, the deep end swept her under.
“My family was looking for me for 10 minutes, until they realized I was drowning,” she recalls. They rushed Spears to the hospital.
When she awoke, she remembered the cold water flowing up her nose. She became determined to learn how to swim, turning her fear into an achievement. “I never wanted to feel so scared again,” she says.
But as she grew older, she somehow lost her belief in herself. At 19, she dropped out of Friendship Collegiate Academy in Northeast. She sat home watching television a lot. Some of her friends were getting arrested for drugs or loitering.
“I couldn’t speak in front of anyone. I didn’t think I was good at anything,” says Spears, who has twists in her short hair and a tongue ring.
Posters of rapper Lil Wayne cover the walls of her bedroom near the Stadium-Armory Metro stop. His lyrics and his life speak to her. Wayne served a prison sentence but got out and made even better music from his pain, Spears says.
“I love the song where he talks about his whole city feeling like it’s under water,” she says. “It reminds me of my life before the Anacostia.”
The Anacostia River was once an economic engine for the region, a superhighway of commerce. Its name even means “village trading center” in Native American culture . Faded old photos show young people romantically strolling by the river, with snapping turtles perched on rocks, and columns of geese . bobbing along its waters.
“When I heard LaVette got a job cleaning up the river, I was just so proud,” says her father, Jefferson Spears, who remembers what the Anacostia was like before it became so fouled. “There was an actual generation before me that was able to swim in that water.”
“They swam in the Anacostia?” LaVette asks, her eyebrows rising.
“Man, it was nice,” Spears says. “It was really something.”
Spears learned to appreciate the river after she learned about the ECC summer job program. She was given a fresh yellow T-shirt and a 6 a.m. start time. It meant getting up at 4 a.m. and taking two buses to get to work. But she was there, on time, nearly every day.
The corps members usually have a certain focus: public speaking or reporting and filmmaking, or, like Spears, working with the raptors — owls, hawks, falcons and eagles — and giving talks about them.
“The raptors are tough but soft, too. Right, Mr. Hoots?” she says inside the ECC headquarters.
Not far away are photographs of nine corps members who have died or been killed over the past nine years, including 19-year-old Diamond Teague, who was gunned down in 2003. The park where the ECC is headquartered is named for him.
Spears often looks at the photographs of those dead corps members. They are on the Anacostia, steering a boat or hauling out bags of trash, their faces smudged with dirt, but smiling or laughing.
Spears wants to honor their lives by making something of her own.
She shows a tattoo she had done in September of a giant drop of water with wings on both sides. It commemorates the time she almost drowned, but it also symbolizes what ECC has meant to her. After graduating from the program, her mentor helped her get a paid internship with the city at DC Water.
Another tattoo on her foot depicts a bright blue sparrow. She chose the bird because it symbolizes change. Her next tattoo, she says, will be of Mr. Hoots, watching over her and the Anacostia River.