SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
For young people growing up east of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., life can be a struggle against gangs and violence. And for much of its modern history, the river itself has been under assault, considered one of the most polluted streams in America and absent of the fish and birds that once thrived in and around it. But for the past 25 years, an organization has been trying to save the Anacostia and the lives of the young adults that grow up not far from its banks. NPR's Hannah Bloch has the story of the Earth Conservation Corps and one member who, with the help of some big birds, was able to turn his life around.
TOINE: But she going to circle, though.
NATE BOGLE: She'll circle around, make sure we're gone and come right back.
HANNAH BLOCH, BYLINE: The sun is finally poking through the storm clouds hovering low over the Anacostia River as Earth Conservation Corps staffers point out a pair of ospreys nesting on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. The ospreys are great at catching fish but not always great at keeping them.
TOINE: What the eagles do, they sit and watch the ospreys hunt. And once the osprey catch a fish, the eagles take it from them.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE TRAFFIC)
BLOCH: All that traffic noise from the bridge doesn't bother these birds. But until Bob Nixon, the founder of the Earth Conservation Corps, and his team helped bring them back, it was rare to spot ospreys here at all. Homebase for Nixon's group is the Old Capitol Pumphouse further down the Anacostia. It was built in 1903 to provide water to steam heat the White House and the Capitol. But by 1950, the river was way too polluted for that. As you enter the Pump House, you pass a brick wall of framed photos honoring the memory of volunteers from the community, the wall of the fallen. Here's Bob Nixon.
BOB NIXON: This is Monique Johnson. She was murdered in 1992. Then, several years later, Gerald Hewlett was killed just a couple blocks from here. I mean, this sort of trail of tears goes on. This is Benny Jones, and he was beaten to death.
BLOCH: They buried 26 corps members in 25 years. Bob Nixon was an outsider when he came here in 1992. He'd been a Hollywood filmmaker who made a documentary about Dian Fossey, the primatologist of "Gorillas In The Mist" fame. Fossey agreed to cooperate with Nixon on one condition - that he dedicate a year of his life to a conservation project.
NIXON: I was in Malibu reading the paper, and it had the picture of this creek, the worst creek in America, blocks from the White House.
BLOCH: It was the Lower Beaverdam Creek, a tributary of the Anacostia, overflowing with tires and trash. Nixon flew to D.C. and met with community activists and won their trust. Nine young people volunteered to work with him. Nixon quickly realized he was not just confronting a polluted waterway. He had to work against how the kids felt they were seen by the world. One of the kids told him...
NIXON: I'm America's nightmare. No one has - ever thinks anything good can come out of a place like this.
BLOCH: Nevertheless, they got to work, strapping on hip waders and slogging into that neglected creek. Anthony Satterthwaite and his friend Burrell Dunkin were among the original volunteers.
ANTHONY SATTERTHWAITE: We had a hundred tires, and then we got 300 tires, then 600 tires, and then we start feeling a sense of accomplishment.
BURRELL DUNKIN: Right, sense of pride.
SATTERTHWAITE: And we just wanted to get more and more and more.
BLOCH: In a few months, the crew had pulled more than 5,000 tires from the water, and as the area got cleaner, they set their sights even higher. It was 1994, and D.C. was in the grip of a crack epidemic with a murder rate the topped 400 a year. At that low point in the city's recent history, Bob Nixon had the idea to bring the bald eagle back to the nation's capitol. It had disappeared decades earlier. Over the next few years, the Earth Conservation Corps raised and released 16 bald eagles. They named those first birds in memory of their fallen friends, the corps members they'd lost. Again, Anthony Satterthwaite.
SATTERTHWAITE: We wasn't supposed to live to see the age of 21. We was just as endangered as this majestic bird that we was trying to save. So it came - became very powerful, and we connected the two, and that's why we started our raptor education program with Rodney Stotts.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
RODNEY STOTTS: Come on.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
STOTTS: This is a red-tailed hawk. I got - we got her back in '09. She was two weeks from being euthanized because no one had held her in five years.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD WINGS FLAPPING)
STOTTS: Sky, I got you.
BLOCH: Rodney Stotts is one of four surviving members of the original corps and one of only 30 African-American falconers, he says, in the U.S. Today, he's showing a hawk named Sky to a group of 30 nervous, excited teenagers and giving them some life lessons along the way.
STOTTS: If you are afraid and you put this bird on your hand, you just did one of the biggest things in the world you can do and that's overcome your fear. And once you got a bird, you can't be in the street. You got to fly your bird. You got to train your bird. Nothing that you love will not love you back. Every animal I've had, every everything that I loved loved me back the same way.
BLOCH: Then it's time for the kids to try holding Sky the hawk. The first brave soul to step forward is ninth-grader Cyriella Batou.
STOTTS: Are you ready?
CYRIELLA BATOU: Yeah.
STOTTS: You sure? You don't have to be scared. I would never put you in a situation where you can get hurt, OK?
STOTTS: OK. Extend your arm out like this. Step up. Close your eyes. Close your eyes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
STOTTS: Hold on. Listen. Open your eyes. Bring your arm up like this. Hold your arm up.
CYRIELLA: (Fast breathing).
STOTTS: Don't hyperventilate. Don't hyperventilate. Now, look at what you're doing. Hold on, hold on, hold on. Calm down. Calm yourself down. Don't worry about touching her. You don't have to worry about touching her.
BLOCH: Sky lets loose with a hearty but harmless flap of her wings.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD WINGS FLAPPING)
STOTTS: No, you OK, baby. You all right.
BLOCH: After the demonstration, Stotts heads onto a deck overlooking the Anacostia.
STOTTS: Osprey - it's an osprey. Look like he had a fish or something in his talons.
BLOCH: He's tall and lean and in constant motion. He fumbles under his shirt and pulls out a small carved turtle hanging around his neck. It reminds him, he says, to slow down.
STOTTS: I've always loved animals. I don't like people. I tell everybody I've just never been a people person. We're the only species that lie, steal, rob, kill, for no reason.
BLOCH: It's been a long road to get here, and it hasn't been a straight line. Rodney Stotts used to be a drug dealer. Now, he lives outside D.C., runs his own small nonprofit and finds satisfaction working with young people.
STOTTS: You realize from who you used to be and all you used to cause is pain and tears. Now you're causing laughter and joy.
BLOCH: When he decided he wanted to become a licensed falconer, Stotts faced resistance and racism.
STOTTS: I was told that black people don't birds. Y'all eat them. These are hawks, owls and falcons, not chickens.
BLOCH: But he ignored all that and focused on what was most important to him. It's not that everything is easy or perfect now - far from it. But Rodney Stotts says working with the birds and animals is what saved his life.
STOTTS: When I'm outside, I can go off, and this great blue heron took my head and took my mind somewhere else. These fish swimming up the stream over here, the beaver with her babies going out now, from stuff that - when you first got here, it was just trash, all trash. You ain't see no signs of life. So how can you sit here mad and want to fight and do something when all you're seeing is beauty come back? So I'll probably - if I didn't get into animals, I'd have died in the street. I mean, you wanted the truth, right? Oh, OK, (laughter).
BLOCH: The afternoon over, Rodney Stotts can't wait to get back to his place in Maryland and jump on one of his horses. He's named them after loved ones he's lost. Hannah Bloch, NPR News.