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Two outstretched hands hold a small turtle with yellow markings on its head and tail
Information icon A search of a creek at the Rock Ranch in central Georgia turned up plants, tadpoles and at least one turtle. The ranch, 70 miles south of Atlanta, hosted more than 200 urban youth recently. They were guests of the Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation, which sponsors an annual mentoring program. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

City comes to the country

Service, others share expertise at Steve Harvey event

Thomaston, Georgia — Rule 1 in the art of angling: You have to master the worm.

“Ewww!” The teen holding the fishing rod recoiled at the sight of a wad of wigglers.

“No. Uh-uh!” — that, from a buddy peering over his shoulder.

And a third reaction, courtesy of a fellow who stood 6-foot-2 or more: “I ain’t touching that!”

Thus did the guys from the city get introduced to a bit of country.

More than 200 boys and young men came recently to Chick-fil-A’s Rock Ranch, a farm 70 miles south of Atlanta, for a literal hands-on introduction to some of the pleasures of rural life. They were guests of Steve Harvey, the comedian, author and game-show host. His nonprofit, the Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation, takes an interest in urban, at-risk youth.

Joining Harvey were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), the Georgia Army National Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A and other organizations.

A young man on the edge of a pond holding a small fish net.
Isaiah Matamoros of metro Atlanta got feet and hands wet while searching for aquatic surprises. He was one of more than 200 urban youth who were guests at the Rock Ranch in central Georgia. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

For four days, the visitors saw some facets of life they may not get in the city – fishing, certainly, but also prowling along creek beds and the edges of ponds, learning about the things that swim and crawl. The Service helped provide some of those lessons.

“I saw a snake!” yelled Quazi Terry, 17. He stood on the side of a creek running through the ranch. Quazi pointed at a stand of weeds, maybe 10 feet from where he stood. “I saw it over there,” he said. Quazi then pointed to the rock where he stood, high enough so he could see anything crawling his way. “So I came over here.”

They came from Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, LA and elsewhere. They were middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and recent grads. Under the watchful eyes of National Guard volunteers, they had a lesson in marching – well, something resembling it. They ate well, laughed hard and got some dirt under their fingernails.

A week later, the foundation hosted about 100 girls and young women, also from urban centers. The message to them, as well as to the young men: It’s good to dream, and dream big.

No shortcuts

The meeting here marked the Harvey foundation’s 11th annual mentoring program. Since its debut in 2009, the program has served more than 4,000 teens aged 13 to 19. For the past several years, the Service has contributed the expertise of biologists and others who work to protect the nation’s wildlife.

For a half-day, the Service shared a little of the outdoors with the young visitors. Service workers gave primers in careers, aquatic discoveries, invasive species — and, of course fishing.

Using simple fishing rods the DNR provided, the youths fanned out along the banks of a muddy pond. A light breeze riffled its surface. In the pond’s depths swam catfish.

Fifteen minutes after affixing worm to hook, Christian Stanley yelped. A bite! He cranked the line. Something in the water pulled back. The reel’s drag shrieked. He cranked some more. The thing below pulled harder. A knot of guys gathered, just in time to see —

Yes! Christian, 14, held up his line. A catfish flashed gray and indignant at its end. With help from a DNR biologist, Christian eased the hook out of the catfish’s mouth. Ploop! He tossed it back.

A GADNR biologist helps a young man remove his hook from a catfish
Christian Stanley (right) of Pensacola, Florida, cannot keep from smiling as off the catfish he caught. Standing by, ready to help get that fish off the hook, is Jamie Dowd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He’s area manager for the Marben Public Fishing Area in Mansfield, Georgia, and participated in the annual Steve Harvey Mentoring Camp for Young Men. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Christian smiled at the ripples marking where the fish vanished. A native of Pensacola, Florida, he’s fished before, “but it’s been a while.”

Having a good time, kid? Christian nodded. “It’s like a boot camp,” he said. “But that’s OK.”

Over the hill, at a pavilion shaded by a couple of trees, Service fishery biologist Byron Hamilton sat atop a table and looked at his audience. Fifty faces looked back.

“You cannot take any type of shortcuts in this life to make a decent living,” said Hamilton, who has been with the Service 21 years. Growing up, he yearned for a world larger than that provided in his native Indianola, Mississippi. After getting a bachelor’s degree in fishery biology, Hamilton joined the Service as an intern. That led to full-time work.

“How many athletes do we have?” he asked. At least 20 hands shot up. Hamilton nodded, then shared some statistics: that the NBA, for example, has 320 slots for basketball players; and that the average NFL player lasts three seasons.

The young men nodded, and realized: A career in professional sports is a long shot.

“I’m not asking you to give up on your dreams,” he said, “but you have to have a backup plan.”

At a creek just over the rise from the pavilion, Jordan Moore got what may have been the glimmering of a plan. He’d spent a half-hour or so discovering living things — tadpoles, turtles, spiders that walk on water. He was enthralled. Could he make a living like this?

“I never thought about doing something like this,” he told a couple of Service biologists, “but now that I’ve seen what you do …” His voice trailed off.

“Can you tell me what schools you went to?” he asked. Jordan, 17, will be a senior this fall.

Hogs, pythons

A female biologist stands at the front of a large group
Biologists Cindy Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives a quick lesson in invasive species. She was one of several Service employees who donated time and expertise to the Steve Harvey Mentoring Camp for Young Men. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Not far away, Service Fisheries Biologist Cindy Williams unrolled what appeared to be a narrow tapestry with diamond patterns. It stretched 9 feet — “python skin,” she announced. All the wigglers in the audience were suddenly still.

A python, Williams said, is an invasive species. Could anyone define that? A hand shot up.

“A parasite?”

Williams, a fishery biologist who specializes in invasive species, nodded. “Close,” she replied.

An invasive, she said, is a species introduced to a new environment to which it is not native — with harmful results to native species, the environment, the economy, or all three. Take pythons: Not native North American, they are overrunning the Florida Everglades, and expanding north, with devastating results for birds, mammals and other creatures that live there. The wet, grassy lowlands of South Florida are a perfect habitat for the scaly predator.

Others invasive creatures, she said, sneak into the country in foreign shipments. Some are pets whose owners dump the animals after tiring of caring for them. And some are accidentally released during storms and floods — the Asian carp, for example.

Their impact on the environment, she noted, can be cataclysmic. For example, wild hogs, brought to this country 400 years ago, decimate the landscape with their rooting. Williams held up a plexiglass box. Inside it was a hog’s skull, its tusks curved like fork tines.

“Hogs,” she said, “can get up to 1,000 pounds.”

A hand shot up. “Are they around here?”

Short answer: Yes.

The seminars wrapped up just as the sun was midway across the Georgia sky. As they headed toward lunch, the young men and boys from the city walked a little straighter, laughed a little louder. They had come to the country, and found it good.


Mark Davis, Public affairs specialist, (404) 679-7291

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