Young People Hit the Roadsides and Beaches to Clean Up Trash

July 24, 2007 — The territory's roadsides, beaches and public areas already look spiffier as summer students in bright green shirts busily pick up debris.
The V.I. Waste Management Authority’s youth environmental summer program (YES), in its 13th year of operation and the third under the auspices of VIWMA, is in full gear on all three islands. The program was formerly known as Clean and Preen under the Anti-Litter and Beautification Commission.
The oversight may have changed, but the focus is the same: clean the islands, protect the environment, respect the environment.
Cordell Jacobs, environmental programs manger for VIWMA St. Thomas-St. John, drives to Magens Bay on a recent rainy day. "We were scheduled for Brewers Beach today," he says, "but with the weather, we rescheduled it for Magens, where there's shelter for the kids."
A virtual army of the green-clad students have gathered at the beach, where they will have time to work in a swim between gathering trash. The six-week program is open to students between 15 and 21. It employs 125 students in each district, St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix. Twelve students work on St. John, along with a supervisor, Jacobs says.
He has been in the program for years. "I love it," he says. "It's the most satisfaction I get — to see the kids learn and grow."
The students do much more than pick up trash. Before the work starts, they get a mini-education in environmental matters.
"Orientation includes workshops in safety, first aid, handling tools and equipment," Jacobs says. "We have people from the various environmental groups talk to the students. Don Buchanan from the energy office told the kids about conservation. This year we showed Al Gore's movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” and it really opened their eyes to what's going on on our planet."
One girl who had her eyes opened was Latishma Wells, an Ivanna Eudora Kean student: "I was really impressed with that movie. I had no idea." Other students echoed Wells' comment, as well as some other observations on their summer jobs.
"One thing I like is the thanks we get from people," says Lionel Blucher, a Charlotte Amalie High School junior. “They'll drive by and say 'great job.' It makes us feel like we're doing something important."
It’s Monday morning, and Sonia Malone marches behind her brood of nine students cleaning up the sidewalk and rocks surrounding the little bay between the Legislature and the pump house.
"I can't tell you how important it is for the kids, and for the island," she says.
She calls to one of her charges.
"Come back," she says. “See the plastic fork here? You overlooked it."
Malone is a paid volunteer in her sixth year of supervising the program, which she conducts like the grandmother she is: kind but stern. "I have four children and seven grandchildren,” she says. “Actually that's nine; we adopted two more."
One of Malone's granddaughters worked with the group at Magens Bay. "I go to school in the States," says Shiquela Barnes, "but I come down every summer and get to work with the summer program." Barnes says she likes the program because "it keeps kids off the streets, keeps them from doing something bad.” She continues, “And they get to learn about the environment."
The students make impressive pocket money for their labors. They make $6.15 an hour, which is 30 cents more than the federal minimum wage, which was hiked to $5.85 Tuesday. This includes lunch supplied by a government school-lunch program and all the water they can drink.
Two students lug an orange water cooler as they trudge down the waterfront.
"It's heavy, but we need it," one says with a smile.
Monday's cleanup started at Wendy's at Mandela Circle and will finish another mile or so ahead at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, Malone says.
"We've filled 10 bags already," she says, gesturing back to the bright yellow bags piled at intervals along their route. "We have to be very careful what the kids pick up." She notices a large piece of plastic roofing among the rocks. "We can't pick that up because the sharp edges would puncture the trash bags and possibly cut someone,” Malone says. “For that same reason, we're careful with broken bottles."
The workers see a lot of beverage and cigarette trash.
"Mostly, it's plastic bottles, cigarette buts, and cans," Malone says. "We want to get the plastic out of here because it floats out to sea. Fish can get tangled up in it, and the bottles eventually come to rest on the shoreline."
She smiles, recalling something they picked up last year. "We found a small octopus right here," she says. "It was stuck between the rocks and didn't look like it could get back out, so we threw it back into the sea."
The work provides important lesson, Malone says.
"Some people think doing this is below them, but the kids are learning something,” she says. “They could start their own businesses one day. They learn about teamwork, about cooperation. They have to have good report cards to get in the program."
She looks over at the students hauling the water cooler. "Okay," she says, "Time for a 15-minute break." The kids scoot over to the welcome shade of a tree by the bus stop, and plop down with thankful grins.
The students get evaluated at the end of the program, Jacobs says.
"They are graded on attention to detail, work ethic, cooperation and teamwork,” he says. “We have about 20 students who work on Saturdays through the school year, and those with the good grades will get the jobs."
The program may run into financial setbacks next year, Jacobs says.
"Unfortunately we may not have the money in our budget because we had a 30-percent cut this year,” he says. “We may need to redirect the money from the program to operational needs, bin collections, things like that."
Stella Saunders, VIWMA communications manager, says she will know more about VIWMA’s ongoing sponsorship of the program Wednesday, when the agency goes before the Senate Finance Committee for its annual budget hearing. The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on St. Thomas.
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