A self-described city boy, C.J. Wimberly of Gaithersburg began the summer afraid of snakes and never having been stung by a bee. Having now survived several encounters with both creatures, Wimberly still doesn't like serpents, but has learned nature can be "pretty cool."
The 19-year-old, who recently graduated from Springbrook High School, spent his summer fixing up trails at C&O Canal Park in Potomac, part of a six-week program through the Student Conservation Association that dispatched 72 area high school students to improve nearby national parks, including C&O Canal Park and Rock Creek Park.
"I thought it would be something different," said Wimberly, who took the summer work at the insistence of his mother. "I've never done anything like this before."
The Student Conservation Association is a nonprofit entity that receives federal grant money to do work in national parks throughout the country. The SCA was founded in 1957 and has been operating in the Washington, D.C. area for 14 years.
High school students ranging from 15 to 19 years old received a $200 weekly stipend to do the work, which included erosion mitigation, trail rerouting and replacing old wooden trail markers with sturdier 200-pound concrete versions.
"I liked that 'cause it made me feel strong," Wimberly said of the heavy lifting.
Through the program, the students learn about nature and help the park system at the same time, said Ted Miller, the SCA's high school program manager for the region. On Thursdays all work is set aside for outdoor education days where students learn skills such as how to use handheld GPS devices or how to kayak.
Miller said many of the students are from the D.C. suburbs and he gets "flooded with applications from [Maryland]."
For one project, the kids improved a trail leading to the C&O Canal, making it accessible for wounded veterans in wheelchairs to access for therapeutic kayaking.
The project was a favorite of Julia Reynoso, a high school junior from the District.
"I think that's good," Reynoso said. "After they'd been injured or whatever, been in a wheelchair ... I guess it gives them like a second chance to do something active."
SCA crews are divided into teams of six, with a team leader who is in college and has first aid and wilderness training. Lauren Bishop, Wimberly's team leader and a student at George Washington University, said her group of students have "been great" and have gotten feedback on their improvements to the park.
"We had a whole group of ladies come through and thank us for fixing the trail and I think that's really good for the kids to hear, that people appreciate their work," Bishop said.
The projects have an element of adventure as well. Bishop's team scared up a ground nest of bees last week and had to hit the trails running for their own sake.
Michael Barnette of Gaithersburg, who will be a junior this year at Magruder High School, said the whole thing was "pretty funny."
"We just saw a whole bunch of people running, and I was like, maybe I should run," Barnette said. He got stung in the incident; Reynoso got stung four times.
Still, Reynoso said she has enjoyed working with the SCA. "It was nice, you're giving back."
Tomas Deza of Silver Spring, who attends Montgomery Blair High School, said the time he spent this summer fixing Rock Creek Park trails washed out in heavy spring rains beat any summer job alternative.
"It's awesome because it's better than being, you know, like in an office doing paperwork," Deza said. "You get to be outside and have fun with other people."
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