By CHRIS COLLINS
Of the Baker City Herald
The Boys Jungle, with its fallen limbs and overgrown grasses, has long served as an unofficial playground for the community's young people.
The area along the Powder River between Main and Walnut streets in east Baker City has been known as the Boys Jungle for as long as many longtime community residents can remember.
Gary Dielman says it was well known when his family moved to town in 1943. Dielman recalls many happy hours spent in the Boys Jungle during his childhood.
andquot;It used to literally be a jungle,andquot; he said. andquot;Today it's like a park.andquot;
Dielman said the stand of trees in the area probably dates back to the 1860s when a surveyor noted the course of the river andquot;was lined with willows.andquot;
Over the years, the reputation of the area has changed from an innocent playground for youngsters to a more infamous retreat for teens who have been known to go to the area to smoke, drink or use drugs, according to Chris Black, the Baker County Juvenile Department director.
Some adults also have retreated to the jungle for illegal activity, and it has been known as a place where transients gather.
andquot;We did what we could to drive our kids out of there,andquot; Black said.
He hopes to transform the area while helping juvenile offenders earn money to pay restitution owed to their victims.
Through the Baker County Juvenile Department, teens who are required to perform community service work and who owe restitution to their victims have been recruited to help with the cleanup.
The ultimate goal is to develop a park-like area to enhance the Leo Adler Memorial Pathway, which travels through the site, Black said. Proposed development of D Street west from Walnut to Main Street also would cut through the area and benefit from the cleanup work.
The juvenile department's efforts at the site are funded with a $6,000 Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant, Black said.
Last summer the department had about $2,500 available to fund a similar restitution project that required court-involved youth assigned to community service work to contribute 60 percent of their earnings to pay restitution owed to their victims.
This year, the grant requires that the young people direct all of their $6.50 minimum-wage earnings to pay their restitution bills.
Teens worked last summer to improve the city's skateboard park near Sam-O Swim Center.
Black said that project helped the young people gain ownership in the work that directly benefited some of them. When the site was vandalized after all their hard work, they also gained empathy for the victims whose property they had taken or damaged through their own criminal activity.
andquot;We've been talking about developing some more substantial, meaningful projects for kids,andquot; Black said, andquot;things they could have ownership over and that would be more visible.andquot;
He hopes cleaning up the Boys Jungle will meet that goal.
Inside the Boys Jungle
The area east of the pathway to Walnut Street is actually county property, he said. Property to the west is owned by Ben Dean. He also has given the juvenile department permission to clear debris, Black said.
One of the first areas to be cleaned out was the spot known as andquot;The Hut,andquot; which was a tangle of overgrown trees and brush that actually formed a shelter, entered from the Walnut Street side. Liquor bottles, beer bottles and a syringe were some of the items found during the cleanup, he said.
andquot;That's the kind of activity we wanted to help drive out of there,andquot; he added. andquot;Ultimately, I see us bringing a bulldozer in here and leveling things out so there is no place to hide.andquot;
Youth work on other projects, too
In addition to the Boys Jungle cleanup, young people who are ordered to complete community service work also helped build a andquot;Welcome to Baker Cityandquot; sign that will be placed on Highway 30 to greet people as they come into town. They also will provide landscaping around the signs.
The teens were so enthused about the project that they wanted to put their names on the signs, Black said.
andquot;We're hopeful kids will have something to be proud of and be involved in positive, productive activities,andquot; he said.
The workers are supervised by Dean Barnes, the juvenile department's youth accountability officer. Barnes has experience in law enforcement and is involved with youth activities at the Nazarene Church, Black said.
As the supervisor, Barnes is responsible for keeping his crews on task as they fulfill their community service obligations. Those who don't comply receive no credit for the time spent that day.
andquot;Dean does a very good job of handling the kids,andquot; Black said.
If the two men's vision for the project can qualify for grant funding, which County Commission Chair Brian Cole has hopes for, it could include grassy areas complete with picnic tables, lighting and maybe even some playground equipment, Black said.
You can help
The juvenile department would eagerly accept help from other youth groups and organizations, he added.
To volunteer, call Black or Barnes at the juvenile department, 523-8215.
andquot;With the added traffic (of D Street development), it will be even more important to get this place cleaned up,andquot; he said. andquot;It could be a two- to three-year project.andquot;