Students bring withered area back to life

Guiding them in their work behind Marietta’s Smitha Middle School was architect Bonita Dukes, who supervised as the students laid out the site, hammering stakes in the ground and spray-painting crooked lines over dirt and asphalt. Once a lot where mobile classrooms stood, the land will become home to a gazebo, volleyball court and urban garden.

If all goes well, they will complete the project by April 17, when kids around the world will mark Global Youth Service Day.

Now in its 23rd year, the annual campaign engages millions of youths through partnerships with schools, communities and faith-based organizations. This year's event will kick off Friday and run through Sunday in more than 100 countries, with kids working to address some of the most challenging local, national and global issues, including health, literacy, childhood hunger and the environment.

This year alone, Youth Service America, the nonprofit that sponsors Global Youth Service Day, awarded more than $1 million in grants to schools, organizations and youths internationally to do the service projects.

“There is not a problem across the globe that a young person does not have a hand in solving,” said Steve Culbertson, president and CEO of YSA. “This is one way young people can change the world by creating, implementing or participating in one of our many projects.”

The effort at Smitha is one of several undertakings in metro Atlanta that are either school- or community-based.

At Tech High School in Atlanta, students have been leading a monthlong anti-bullying initiative called “I Am a Friend.” In Stone Mountain, they will hold the second annual Youth Skate-Off Marathon to raise awareness about childhood obesity. And in Lawrenceville, a group of sixth-grade science students will design and create a community garden to promote healthy eating.

At Smitha, Dukes' crew envisioned a place where the community could gather for picnics and enjoy other outdoor family activities.

Dukes, 42, has spent years designing sustainable community spaces in neighborhoods that wouldn’t ordinarily support them.

While visiting an Atlanta apartment complex site in 2007, Dukes became troubled over why the once beautiful places she had designed had been defaced with graffiti, trash and crime only years after their construction.

What if she could change people’s mind-sets? she thought. What if she could engender pride and respect for property in those same children through architecture and community service?

“I needed to find a way to sustain our communities and get kids engaged because they are stakeholders who will one day lead our communities,” Dukes said. “That was my call to action.”

And so in 2008, Dukes founded KidBuilders Inc., a nonprofit that teaches youths, particularly those most economically and educationally disadvantaged, how to design spaces for their community.

Last fall, she extended her work to Smitha, where students began work redesigning the 21/2-acre lot behind the school.

“We saw a blank canvas with wonderful opportunities for outdoor learning,” Dukes said.

It was the students -- 20 sixth-, seventh- and eight-graders -- who decided how to fill the space.

Working alongside Dukes and other industry professionals, including engineers, landscape designers and urban planners, the students began.

They had some pretty highfalutin ideas, including a swimming pool, a clock tower, a pond filled with koi fish, a volleyball court and a gazebo complete with a moat.

They learned how to select trees and other environmentally friendly materials that would thrive in the west Cobb County soil.

But with a budget of only $8,977 -- from private and corporate donations -- they soon discovered they had to make some brutal cuts.

They scratched the swimming pool, the clock tower, fish pond and moat, and they kept the gazebo, volleyball court, plant materials and picnic tables.

“It was so refreshing to see my kids work so hard on a project that will mean so much to the school and community,” Smitha principal Sharon Tucker said.

“They had a ball. They took the initiative. They stayed after school," she said. "I’m so proud of them.”

With Dukes' assistance, the students put their ideas to paper. The community joined them for a Saturday cleanup, and late last month on a school day they gathered to lay the groundwork.

“The garden is not going to be as huge as you’d like it to be,” Dukes yelled to Lydia Gutema, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, as she measured the space for the volleyball court.

Lydia shrugged her narrow shoulders and continued working.

“It’s been fun,” she said, when asked about her experience with KidBuilders. “It’s a mixture of math and art.”

Neither of the disciplines struck 13-year-old Victoria Morales as particularly fun, but it provided her an opportunity to contribute to her community, and she admitted discovering that the inner workings of architecture are interesting.

“I will never look at a building the same way," she said. "There’s a lot of work that goes into them.”

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