by Jim Loew, photo Vince Bushell

On July 26 the Washington High students joined with others to celebrate the completion of the East Bank Trail running along theriver valley from Riverside Park to Caesar’s Park and the pedestrian bridge over the old dam. Take a hike along the new trail and youwill see the work done by a group of partners to successfully open the valley for public access. More importantly, slow down and lookaround at nature in the heart of our city.

Since June 19, five WashingtonHigh School students havebeen working as part of ateam to help revitalize a stretchof the Milwaukee River betweenLocust Street and North Avenueas part of United Water’s annualsummer internship program.These students are working underthe supervision of the RiverRevitalization Foundation (RRF).The program will conclude for thesummer on August 20.

United Water has been working aspart of its community involvementprogram exclusively withWashington High School for sevenyears. However, this is the firstsummer they have collaboratedwith RRF.

“We approached (RRF) in Januaryof this year with the idea, and theysaid they were interested,” said JaneLeCapitaine, community relationsmanager for United Water.

By February, United Water began the studentrecruitment process, with an emphasis onthe positions as internships, not jobs perse. LeCapitaine stresses that learning is akey element of the internship and that theselection process is comprehensive.

“As part of the application process, eachstudent needs a recommendation from twoteachers and a written paragraph from aparent or legal guardian explaining whyhis or her child should be chosen,” saidLeCapitaine. Before anyone is selected,members of United Water’s HumanResources department come to WashingtonHigh School and provide training to thestudents on how to interview successfully.Employees from United Water conductthe interviews, which take place in Marchand April. Out of about 40 applicants, 16are selected. Five are working with RRF,and the remaining 11 are placed at theJones Island and South Shore WastewaterTreatment plants.

The River Revitalization Foundation, whichadvocates environmental conservation,public access and sensitive recreation inmetro Milwaukee’s river watersheds, has therole of training and supervising the interns.The students are spending the summerengaged in a variety of tasks on both sidesof the river, removing invasive plant speciesand replacing them with native trees, plantsand shrubs.

“It’s hard work,” said Vince Bushell, projectcoordinator for RRF, “but I’m happy to saythat all the students have shown up for workeach day.”

Because it’s a lot of grunt work, Bushell triesto vary the tasks throughout the week.“One day, I might have everyone removinggarlic mustard and buckthorn, and the nextday we might be planting,” he explained.The students work Monday throughThursday, 8 am to 4 pm, and seem to beenjoying the experience.

“Attendance is paramount,” said LeCapitaine.“We tell them, ‘Imagine throwing cash outthe window.’” But, she points out, “Weknow they’re students, and we try to workwith them and be supportive.”

Bushell added, “We want them to beresponsible and show up, be on time, andshow some interest.”

In addition to receiving school credit, theinterns are paid for their work. A typical dayfor the interns begins at 8 am when the busdrops them off at Gordon Park. From therethey walk to an area along the MilwaukeeRiver, where the interns and RRF staffbegin either removing garlic mustard orbuckthorn, or planting native species. Theybreak for lunch, then continue workinguntil 4 pm. The bus drives the studentsback to Washington High School at the endof the day.

Bushell feels the students are gaining fromthe experience. “This is just a differentworld for most of these kids,” he said.“When you’re down here along the river,you’re really away from the city. We evensaw a deer recently.”

United Water certainly hopes so, since this iswhat they have in mind when they commit5% of its pretax dollars to educational andenvironmental programming.

“We made a commitment to WashingtonHigh School,” said LeCapitaine. At theend of this summer, 87 students will havesuccessfully completed the internshipprogram this year. Because students earnschool credit for their involvement in thesummer internship program, they learnabout such things as storm water, finances,leadership training and development. Inaddition, they learn about the benefits ofland conservation and its impact on waterquality.

United Water is also involved in otherfacets of Washington High School, whererepresentatives have served on curriculumcommittees and helped with special events.The company has even paid for teacherdevelopment.

The RRF compliments the work of UnitedWater by teaching the students about whatan urban environment is, what types ofplants are invasive, river water, how plantsbenefit the river, and how to keep the riverclean.

“At the end of the program we have acelebration,” said LeCapitaine. “Parentsare invited, as well as employees, schooladministrators, and elected officials. Andbecause the completion of the internshipis truly an accomplishment, certificatesare presented for perfect attendance,leadership, and overall performance. A $50gift certificate comes with an award.

“We want to show these students that thereare rewards in life for good work,” saidLeCapitaine.

Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2006