This Week On Metro Connection: New Beginnings (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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This Week On Metro Connection: New Beginnings

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

Welcome to "Metro Connection," I'm Sabri Ben-Achour, in this week for Rebecca Sheir. And we can finally declare, after all the months of barnstorming and debating and robocalling and political mailings and door knocking, it's over. A spokesperson for the city's board of election says it looks like D.C. is having a record turnout this year. And says...

MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA

Voters stream out at the Silver Spring Civic Center waiving little I Voted stickers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

Tomorrow, no more negative campaign ads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

The longest time I've ever had to wait for any election, by far.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

No state had ever approved same-sex marriage via voter referendum but within minutes, both Maine and Maryland did so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

And once Kaine took the stage, it soon became clear that the only thing that would be keeping supporters up late was celebration.

BEN-ACHOUR

Fireworks over the Potomac River, last night, as supporters celebrated the passage of the Maryland Gaming Measure.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

A long campaign is now over.

GOV. MITT ROMNEY

At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the peoples work.

OBAMA

I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do...

CARDOZA

And while they're proud to have cast their ballots, many say they're really looking forward to the end of this grueling campaign season.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN

Thank you and God bless, America. You guys are the best.

OBAMA

Thank you, America. God bless you. God bless these United States.

BEN-ACHOUR

That's right, it's over unless you happen to live or work here in the nation's capitol and have reason to head down to this place -- so I'm out on the West Front of the Capitol Building. It's full on, about three months almost, ahead of inauguration day but there is a whole bunch of construction going on out here. So we are going to go inside the Capitol to talk to the man who knows what this is all about.

MR. STEPHEN AYERS

I'm Stephen Ayers, the Architect of the Capitol.

BEN-ACHOUR

We're in this building circular room filled with columns. Can you tell me where we are right now?

AYERS

Well, this is the crypt of the United States Capitol, right in the center of the Capitol Building.

BEN-ACHOUR

Why is it called the crypt?

AYERS

First, it's below the rotunda and it's called a crypt because this is where George Washington and Martha Washington were to be buried. Of course, they were never buried here.

BEN-ACHOUR

Come inauguration day, tell me what's going to happen in this space.

AYERS

Well, this is the crypt so this is sort of a transitional space on inauguration day. And where we're standing is actually the route that the President will take. So as the President's walking through this Capitol Building on Inauguration Day, there is virtually no time where he's not on camera. So as he's descending these steps right here, there's a camera mounted right up on that wall on the corner that's capturing him coming down these steps.

AYERS

Right up until he gets to this door to the West Front of the Capitol, the President will usually take a moment there to take a breather and then those doors open and that's his time to give his address to the nation and it's the time where he, you know, it's this peaceful transition of power that happens in this great country. It's so unique.

BEN-ACHOUR

How many of these have you seen?

AYERS

I've been in the Architect's office for 16 years, so I've seen my share of inaugurations.

BEN-ACHOUR

Now, as we look out this window here, I mean, this whole West End of the Capitol area is roped off, it's closed and I, basically, it looks like construction lot out there. Can you tell me what some -- what exactly are you building?

AYERS

Sure, so the -- you know, the West Front of the Capitol has a plaza and a set of stairs and a beautiful fountain and a ring of trees around that fountain. Well, all of that is covered up by these grandstands that seat some 1,600 people and another several hundred people above that. So all of those people sit in a stadium style platform that we build, stick build, out of wood every four years. To the left and right of this platform will be tall media stands and then right in front of these platforms where there's a little bump out where the President stands, right in front of that, is a television tower.

AYERS

So we have the base of the platform finished now. You know, we turned the fountain off, we filled the fountain with sand, we build the structure out over the platform and you can see where the President stands. It's actually 25 or 30 feet in the air, out over this fountain. So that platform is done. And now we're working on the bleachers that surround this flat platform.

BEN-ACHOUR

Planning for the inauguration is clearly well underway. How early do you start?

AYERS

This inauguration happens every four years or inaugurations happen every four years. So once they happen, just a month after that, we do a hot wash and we gather everybody back together and we pick a part that inauguration. What went great? What went wrong? What can we do a better job at? How can we tweak the chairs or the stage or the platform or the music or the sound system or the jumbo-trons? You name it, we do that right after that inauguration and we capture all of that on paper. And then two years later, a year away from the next inauguration, we begin to pull that back out.

AYERS

So a year ago on this construction for the platforms here on the West Front, we started that process of reviewing the design work, getting construction contracts procured and awarded. And as you can see today, right after Labor Day, we close down the West Front and start construction. And we'll be under construction up until about the middle of January.

BEN-ACHOUR

How is the inauguration construction or plans changed over time?

AYERS

Well, the inaugurations of President's were typically held on the East Front of the Capitol for many, many years up through 1981, I believe it was, with President Reagan. He moved to the West Front of the Capitol. And I think primarily, that move was for making it more accessible to the people. We can fit more people on the West Front. And, of course, they can flow all the way out through the National Mall. And since then, you know, the stadium stands that we build every four years have been tweaked a little bit but not -- quite frankly, not that much.

BEN-ACHOUR

And then I'm just curious, what does the Architect of the Capitol do when he's not setting up the next inauguration?

AYERS

Well, interesting, we have at the same time, it's a Presidential election year, this is a Congressional election year as well. There are a number of Congressmen and Senators that won't be returning that have retired or lost elections. So we move all of their offices around. So we're busy with planning for that at the moment. But other than that, our job is to serve, preserve and inspire, so we serve the American people, we serve the Congress.

AYERS

We maintain and build and preserve all of the facilities that are entrusted to our care. And with 2.5 million people visiting this Capitol Building a year and another million people visiting our Botanic Garden, providing inspirational visits and education visits is something that's important to us as well.

BEN-ACHOUR

That was Stephen Ayers, the Architect of the U.S. Capitol speaking with me about prep for January's inauguration. And we want to know, do you have a favorite memory of an inauguration gone by? Have you ever crammed yourself onto the freezing mall to witness one yourself? You can reach us at metro@wamu.org or find us on Twitter. Our hand is @WAMUmetro.

BEN-ACHOUR

You can't really get away from the hoopla during a presidential election year, but here's something that's too easily overlooked. Sunday is Veterans Day, and across the U.S., more than 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. The majority of these veterans served during the Vietnam War, and many have severe mental illnesses, physical disabilities, or drug and alcohol problems. Now there's a national effort to end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza takes us inside a program designed specifically to get vets off the street, and in their own homes.

CARDOZA

Will Connelly, with the nonprofit, Pathways to Housing DC, is checking in on homeless people downtown. It's cold and rainy and miserable.

MR. WILL CONNELLY

How you been, Frosty?

MR. FOREST BIBBY

Pretty good. How you doing?

CONNELLY

Doing well. What's going on?

CARDOZA

Forest Bibby, who goes by Frosty, has a bushy beard, wears a camouflage jacket, and carries a Veterans for Peace flag. When he returned from Vietnam, he lost touch with his family and drifted from place to place. For decades, he slept in parks, alleys, abandoned buildings.

BIBBY

The army taught me well. They taught me how to survive in any kind of situation.

CARDOZA

Bibby is resentful about how he's been treated.

BIBBY

I didn't have much of a choice to go in, so I went in to fight for my country. When I got out 37 years ago, they called us either crazy or drug addicts.

CARDOZA

Will Connelly says that's part of the reason it can sometimes take years to build trust with these veterans.

CONNELLY

Especially Vietnam vets don't often open up about what trauma they experience in the past, like PTSD and other things that they didn't really have the vocabulary for.

CARDOZA

And Connelly gives out bags stuffed with fruit snacks, water, and beef jerky, he says several veterans need medical attention.

CONNELLY

If you wear the same shoes and socks for a long period of time, your feet can just rot, basically. When it gets colder, hypothermia is an issue. There's a gentleman I'm working with that has a callus on his foot, and he tried to like shave it down himself, and he cut himself, and he's got diabetes and that's just -- it's not a good thing.

CARDOZA

There are more than 500 homeless veterans in D.C., including David, who has scabies, Michael, who shouts out Bible verses, and Norman, who insists he's working with the President on a super secret project. Many don't have teeth, some have delusions involving the government.

CONNELLY

There was a veteran that was sitting on the same bench in front of the Department of Justice for like over a year, and would only get up to like go to the bathroom.

CARDOZA

He believed he owed the government taxes, and that was his way of paying off his debt.

CONNELLY

So it was very complicated, and it was hard to follow, but you understood that he had to stay on this bench.

CARDOZA

Christy Respress heads the nonprofit, Pathways to Housing DC. She's working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reach people exactly like Bibby, using a model called Housing First. She says the program does exactly what it sounds like, housing comes first. Then these veterans are connected with intensive services.

MS. CHRISTY RESPRESS

There's a psychiatrist, social workers, a nurse, addiction specialist, all working together with that veteran to help them achieve a full life.

CARDOZA

Vince Kane, who heads the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans, says at first, VA hospitals were uncomfortable with this approach because they were used to doing exactly the opposite. Veterans, for example, had to be sober and taking their medications before they qualified for housing.

MR. VINCE KANE

In the past, there was this notion of somebody had to be housing-ready or treatment first.

CARDOZA

Federal vouchers pay up to $1,400 a month toward an apartment. The veteran contributes up to 30 percent of his or her income, from disability or Social Security checks. Raymond Rose, another veteran, is hoping to get an apartment through this program. Rose has a heart condition, and walking even short distances leaves him breathless. He worked as a television cameraman in D.C., but when he lost his job, he wasn't sure what to do.

MR. RAYMOND ROSE

The money starts to run out after a while. I had to leave the apartment I was in, and that left me homeless.

CARDOZA

All the while, Rose never told anyone. He says that's part of having served in the military, you learn not to complain or share your feelings.

ROSE

When you come home, you don't talk about what you did, or what you do. I was kind of used to keeping the way I was actually living to myself.

CARDOZA

Rose says the most challenging part of living outside isn't the fear of getting beaten up or getting caught in bad weather, it's being recognized.

ROSE

The hardest part is wondering if someone you know is gonna come up on you. Wonder what's going on. What do you say? Growing up the way I did, there was a kind of pride in your status, you know, in the community. And now, it's like...

CARDOZA

Rose trails off. After decades of having to stay semi-awake on the streets all the time, he dreams of getting his own place someday, a place where he can go to sleep, as he puts it, and stay asleep. Mary Cunningham with the Urban Institute, studies programs targeted at chronically homeless veterans. She says the Housing First model has been very successful among these veterans, most at risk of dying on the streets.

MS. MARY CUNNINGHAM

In multiple studies, 85, 90 percent actually remain in the housing.

CARDOZA

Cunningham says some studies show veterans in the program are more likely to stop using drugs and stay on medication. It's also less expensive.

CUNNINGHAM

Many of the people you see on the street, they're using lots of services, cycling in and out of jails, hospitals, detox facilities, and they're using police resources. All of that costs the taxpayer money.

CARDOZA

Vince Kane with the VA says, last year, the project was expanded from the District to 14 cities with high rates of veteran homelessness, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And since Oct. 1 this year, every VA hospital in the country has been using the Housing First model.

KANE

These are the men and women that put their lives on the line for our communities. They have become disengaged, disenfranchised, disconnected. We need to assist them to fully come home.

MR. CURTIS LEE CLARK

Right here. If it doesn’t fit this way, facing this way? Okay.

MALE

(unintelligible)

MALE

Oh, that's true, okay.

CARDOZA

The staff from Pathways to Housing DC is helping Curtis Lee Clark (sp?), a Vietnam veteran, settle in to his own apartment. He's literally just moved in. His new home is still empty. But Clark proudly shows off the gleaming, white carpeted rooms.

CLARK

The bedroom, closet. You get a lot of room. Plus, it'll be my own. It's been a while.

CARDOZA

Clark has been living in bus shelters and on park benches since 1984. His happy demeanor slips when he's asked why he didn't go to the VA for help. He says he did for years, but was told every time to be patient, you're on a list.

CLARK

The government is not fair. They're a bunch of liars.

CARDOZA

His fourth floor apartment has large windows, but the blinds are drawn.

CARDOZA

Which window has the best view?

CLARK

I put them down.

CARDOZA

Reluctantly, he pulls up the blinds.

CLARK

You see leaves, see the cars, you can see the changing of the seasons.

CARDOZA

Clark takes a peek and then quickly pulls them down again. He's not ready to let the light in just yet, but maybe sometime soon. I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

BEN-ACHOUR

This story is something of a preview of next week, when WAMU 88.5 will bring you a special week of coverage in recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. You can find more info at our website, metroconnection.org.

BEN-ACHOUR

Time for a quick break, but when we get back, a high school baseball player works to recover from a major spinal cord injury.

MR. STEVE BALENGER

Every second of every day has changed for Nick. And every second of every day, Nick works hard, and he doesn't look back, and he doesn't look forward. He just grinds.

BEN-ACHOUR

That and more in a minute, on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

BEN-ACHOUR

I'm Sabri Ben-Achour in for Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, we're bringing you a show all about new beginnings. And in this next part of the show we're gonna get a little personal. We'll talk with a nun who left a life in the convent to become a mother and a businesswoman, and we'll go job hunting with a D.C. teen who just got out of the city's juvenile facility and is trying to leave his old mistakes behind him.

BEN-ACHOUR

First, though, we're gonna spend some time with Nick Balenger.

MR. NICK BALENGER

So what you think we're gonna do, walker or parallel bars again?

BEN-ACHOUR

I met up with Nick earlier this week at the Med Star National Rehabilitation Hospital on Irving Street in northwest D.C. He was out of his wheelchair on a large padded table, legs in the air, as a physical therapist pushed her full body weight into his feet to stretch them out.

BALENGER

Man, that hurts.

BEN-ACHOUR

Katie Seward is his therapist. She's twisting and stretching his limbs as she always does before a session.

MS. KATIE SEWARD

To maintain his range of motion. So, you know, if he can't move his joints through a range through him activating muscles, then it's our job to kinda stretch and keep that, so that when he does get that strength back, that he's not dealing with contractures or other things that would limit his mobility.

BEN-ACHOUR

Nick is 17 and a high school student from Burke, Va. Despite having been a star baseball player and a little league coach for years, he is pale and very thin. He came to this hospital paralyzed from the neck down.

BALENGER

I have feeling everywhere except, uh, from my chest down, I can't feel temperature.

BEN-ACHOUR

In the cafeteria, over a lunch of fried chicken and French fries, Nick and his father Steve tell me how it happened.

BALENGER

I was at Big Beach in Hawaii and running into the ocean. And I dove into a wave and the water depth was a lot shorter than I thought it was. So I dove in, head my head on the bottom and, uh, I was just floating there, immediately paralyzed. And my dad, luckily, was like 10 feet away and pulled me out of the water. And then all the lifeguards came, took me away in a stretcher and then off to the ambulance, into the hospital.

BEN-ACHOUR

Were you awake during that time?

BALENGER

Um-hum, I was conscious the whole time. So I remember everything, cracking my neck on the bottom, floating in the water waiting for someone to get me and then, yeah, I remember every second.

BEN-ACHOUR

What were you thinking?

BALENGER

Well, the whole time I was thinking -- my dad was just like, oh, it's just a shock to the system, just a shock to the system. So I was thinking I'd be able to go play golf a couple days later and I guess I just didn't realize the severity of my accident.

BEN-ACHOUR

When Nick got back to D.C. from Hawaii on August 13, by air ambulance, he was almost totally paralyzed from the neck down. He could only muster the tiniest of twitches in his extremities.

DR. JUSTIN BURTON

Nick has a cervical spinal cord injury.

BEN-ACHOUR

Dr. Justin Burton is his physician.

BURTON

Technically, his spinal cord was intact, but the--the fibers and the cells themselves were actually already injured.

BEN-ACHOUR

But what is remarkable about Nick is that he's getting better. He can move his arms now, even cutting his own chicken at lunch. It's not graceful, but he can do it.

BURTON

The amount of recovery that he's had is more than most. And so that's how Nick's a little atypical.

BEN-ACHOUR

Dr. Burton says the next few months will reveal just how much Nick will regain the ability to move.

BURTON

We generally see the most recovery within the first six months and so you should see the most recovery in the first kind of three months. You don't see as much motor recovery in that second kind of six-month period, but I generally say you give it at least a year.

BEN-ACHOUR

Steve Balenger says the road ahead for his family will be an expensive one. Accommodations for college, wheelchairs, therapy, it can all add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but as Nick says, his friends haven't let him down. His classmates, teachers, rival teams, baseball coaches, even strangers have stepped up to help.

BALENGER

When we were out there in Maui, one of his teachers called out to a local pizza parlor and had dinner catered to us in ICU. My wife works at the Four Seasons in Georgetown and they've been unbelievable. They're actually gonna do a dinner I believe in January. Five celebrity chefs from town are gonna be doing a benefit dinner. The baseball community set up the golf tournament the other day. And Lake Braddock's been unbelievable.

BALENGER

You know you never think something like this is gonna happen to you, but it has. And the support from everybody is pretty amazing.

BEN-ACHOUR

Back in the therapy room Nick is wearing a gray t-shirt. In black stencil print it reads...

BALENGER

Pain is weakness leaving the body. One of my Aunt's friends gave it to me.

BEN-ACHOUR

Movement is exhausting for Nick. Standing is exhausting, but with a few deep breaths he launches himself from the padded table up to stand with the help of a walker.

BALENGER

One, two, three.

BEN-ACHOUR

An electrical contraption called the Bioness helps him with limited movements. It's a collection of sensors and electrodes that send pulses into his muscles.

BALENGER

This is just practice to get me walking normal again, but when I step with my left foot, the, uh, electrical things just stimulates the nerve to kick my foot up.

BEN-ACHOUR

Nick struggles to put one foot in front of the other. His left leg is weaker than his right and it drags. He manages to move forward though. Sometimes with a gentle nudge from a therapist's foot. He makes it back to the table and his leg is quivering in a spasm.

BALENGER

How you feel?

SEWARD

You okay?

BALENGER

Awful.

BEN-ACHOUR

Awful, he says quietly.

BALENGER

I need some water. I feel nauseous.

SEWARD

Okay.

BEN-ACHOUR

Steve Balenger lifts up a cup of water to his son's mouth.

BALENGER

Do you know how far that was? 60 feet, 'cause I counted the tiles.

BALENGER

New record.

BEN-ACHOUR

One step at a time Nick is surpassing the expectations of his doctors, his therapist and his family.

BALENGER

Every second of every day has changed for Nick. And every second of every day, um, Nick works hard and he doesn't look back and he doesn't look forward, he just grinds. And I'm real proud of him, real proud of the way he's taken this journey on and just grinds.

BEN-ACHOUR

Nick's goal is to be able to walk across the stage at his high school graduation in June. You can find the link to Nick's website and photos on our website, metroconnection.org.

BEN-ACHOUR

Our next story is also about a local teen, one who just got released from New Beginnings, D.C.'s high-security juvenile detention facility. Emily Berman met up with him, we'll call him Shawn, and found out how you start your life over at 17.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

This is the first week of Shawn's new life.

SHAWN

I'm at Waterfront Station currently waiting for a job interview at the Department of Transportation. I don’t know exactly what the job will be, but I'm just hoping and waiting to see if I get hired or not.

BERMAN

Two days after he was released from the detention center, his case manager called him to let him know she had lined up an interview for an internship. Shawn dug out his nice clothes, clothes he hasn't worn for years.

SHAWN

I have on a purple shirt, a tie and gray slacks and some dress shoes, what I'm not really used to.

BERMAN

What Shawn did to land himself in court, happened three years ago, but he says it feels like it was two seconds ago. As he talks about it, his breath changes and his eyes dart around while the scenery plays in his mind.

SHAWN

We stole a car for no reason. We started getting chased and we hit a pole. The boy in the back flew out of the car with the door. He was holding onto the door. I thought he died. The airbag took the skin off my face and I was knocked out for about 10 seconds. I went to jail. Got put on probation for six months.

BERMAN

Two months before his probation was over Shawn got caught in another stolen car. His probation was extended and Shawn became more and more angry.

SHAWN

I got into a fight with a police officer. First I got put in a group home and then sent out a residential placement. And I caught some charges out of the residential placement, little stuff, but the little things add up. They just said they was tired of it and put me out of the program.

BERMAN

The Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services sent Shawn to New Beginnings, a facility that's both a detention center and a school.

SHAWN

I was trying to get home as soon as I got there. So the least you're gonna be gone is eight months. They try their best to not make you feel like you're in a detention center. They remind you of it, like, they don't bring, like, into total comfort, but they try to teach you more than they punish you. Like, by my second month I just got into the mindset of just trying to forget I was there and doing what I had to do while I was there and just look up one day and they just tell me it's time to go.

BERMAN

New Beginnings can handle just 66 people at a time. The offenders here range from 14 to 21 years old. And at 17, Shawn was on the older end of the group. Sometimes he says he went out of his way to give extra attention to the younger guys there.

SHAWN

There was this boy, we called him Hulk. I know how to draw, so when I'd bring my drawing pad out and sit down and he always sit right there and watch me draw. So one day he started bringing his drawing pad out there. So he just start drawing a picture and I'd be like, draw it again. He can draw now. Like, at first he could draw, but he just didn't know how to put it all together. He found a talent that he didn't know he had forever.

BERMAN

Shawn finished his high school credits and received a diploma, something he says he never would have done if he were still on the streets. In his spare time he completed certification programs in barbering and culinary arts.

SHAWN

When you down there all you've got is time. Now, when you're home, like, you can notice like when your down time is, like when you're really not doing nothing when you could be doing something with that time.

BERMAN

Every minute was used to teach, Shawn says, even when he thought he was taking a break.

SHAWN

We had this one staff named Mr. Kearney. So I'm a basketball player, so when I played basketball, he would be on the sideline talking trash. He like, yeah, he gonna have to learn how to not have rabbit ears to the sidelines.

BERMAN

Shawn had a session everyday where kids talked about going home to their old neighborhoods and avoiding old habits. Now, that he's out, those conversations have a whole new meaning.

SHAWN

If you take things that they give you and run with it, like, it comes back to you. I mean, like, I don't think you'll find another detention center out here like that one. And I don't know what it is about down there, but they sure do teach a lot.

BERMAN

Back outside the metro station waiting for his interview, Shawn describes that day he was released. The staff gathered together with all his mentors, his teachers and his mother to surprise him with an impromptu party. They said, okay, you can go home now.

SHAWN

No, they caught me off guard. I knew it was coming soon, but not that soon. As I was driving down the road, I had to think like I'm free.

BERMAN

He's been accepted to Northampton Community College and is waiting to hear from two more schools. Classes start in January, but in the meantime he's really hoping he gets this internship. I'm Emily Berman.

BEN-ACHOUR

So here's a question, what happens when you choose a fairly unique path in life and then years later realize it's just not the right fit, just not for you? D.C. resident Grace Steckler knows she spent more than a decade in a convent, but eventually decided she wanted a different kind of life. So she left, but the convent didn't leave her. She's a wife now, a mother, a businesswoman, but inside she's still that nun. She brought along all the things she learned in her old life and is using that to build a new one. Heather Taylor brings us the story.

MS. HEATHER TAYLOR

Check in with Grace Steckler on early weekday mornings and you're likely to find her starting her day in her role as president of Saving Grace Services talking with her employees.

MS. GRACE STECKLER

There's a field reviewer, there's a manager who takes care of what the dog walkers are doing when they're out...

TAYLOR

Saving Grace Services is the pet care, home cleaning and small home repair services company that Steckler started 12 years ago. Weekday mornings are also when you'll find her getting her three youngest children off to school.

STECKLER

Oh, what a great idea. You know what we need to do...

TAYLOR

She's got the kind of busy schedule familiar to anyone juggling work and parenting, but ask Steckler about her life before marriage, children and her business, the 12 years she spent as a Catholic nun, and it's a very different story. Her days sound not only busy, but also pretty intense.

STECKLER

When I was in the religious life, in the convent, we had a pretty regimented life. It was sometimes up before 4:00 in the morning. We went to school. We studied religious topics. We would clean the bathrooms and scrub the steps and, you know, do all the physical work that needed to be done.

TAYLOR

And Steckler loved it.

STECKLER

I used to say I could scrub bathrooms all day long, as long as I had a friend to talk to, we would sing our musical songs, we would practice hymns, we would pray, but it never felt like a drudgery.

TAYLOR

But what made Steckler a self-described, rebellious 17-year-old decide to enter the religious life at 18?

STECKLER

It was just teenage angst. I think that people think for teenagers, they're able to handle changes like that a little bit better than they are. They kinda assume that they're adults already, but for me it was a difficult transition to make.

TAYLOR

So how did Steckler know she was making the right decision?

STECKLER

One night I just had a spiritual experience. I felt that I was filled up with love. And the next morning I woke up and I said, oh, okay. This is clear. I need to be a nun.

TAYLOR

So she tried it out before making a final decision.

STECKLER

I was going to a Catholic school and I talked to one of the nuns and she said, well, we have weekends. You could come visit and see what it's like and so I did.

TAYLOR

And once she entered the convent, she expected to stay forever, but her feelings about the convent began to change as she neared her 30th birthday.

STECKLER

I was feeling increasingly dissatisfied with--with how my life was going.

TAYLOR

Steckler thinks part of the dissatisfaction had to do with age.

STECKLER

The nun that was closest to me in age was 25 years older than me. And many of the nuns had been teaching for 60, 65 years. They were 88, 85 years old.

TAYLOR

But it wasn't just the age difference. Steckler had the sense that they didn't always support her ideas.

TAYLOR

I would lead groups to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in rural West Virginia.

TAYLOR

The nuns were somewhat puzzled by her approach.

STECKLER

They would wonder why wasn't I wearing my religious habit when I was pounding the nails. Well, of course, I’m not gonna be wearing a habit. I'm gonna wear jeans and a t-shirt and a nice baseball hat on my head to cover up and I was focusing on teaching the girls, giving them this wonderful experience, showing them that they can make a difference and I felt a little bit like I didn't quite belong there anymore.

TAYLOR

Her dissatisfaction grew.

STECKLER

In the evenings, the sisters would, you know, just watch television programs. One night I was thinking, oh, my, I can't imagine me in 50 years sitting here in this community room watching reruns of "Murder She Wrote." That's not the life I see for myself.

TAYLOR

But there was also a more fundamental reason for her dissatisfaction.

STECKLER

In a certain way, I felt that the religious life was very abstract for me and that I was living a lot in my head and not really experiencing life the way I needed to.

TAYLOR

So after nearly a year of dissatisfaction and reflection, the answer came to her.

STECKLER

And I said, okay, I need to leave the convent. It was the same experience that led me to enter the convent.

TAYLOR

Steckler credits her years at the convent with helping her to listen for what she calls inner nudges.

STECKLER

It's just a matter of just being quiet. Just give yourself enough quiet time to listen for those tiny, tiny bits of inspiration.

TAYLOR

Does she ever think about returning to the convent?

STECKLER

I have dreams that I still wear a habit. I'm walking through the halls that I used to walk through, but it was over for me.

TAYLOR

Family life is part of the reason.

STECKLER

I could talk about God's love when I was in the convent, but now I've got, like, children hugging me. And that is what I needed to feel in my life now, was, you know, the actual concrete experience of being loved and living in a family.

TAYLOR

And she thinks her successful business is an outgrowth of her experience in the convent.

STECKLER

If you are searching for the good and then I believe that you will make business decisions that will also have that sort of goal. All of that is a reflection of what I try to do with my life, how can I improve, how can I give more, how can I do better? And I think I've got that out of being in the convent.

TAYLOR

And speaking of inner nudges, Steckler's now moving her company to the next phase, franchising her pet care business. She wants other entrepreneurs to embark on their own new beginnings. I'm Heather Taylor.

BEN-ACHOUR

When it comes to life changes, what helps you make satisfying decisions, meditation, prayer, those inner nudges Grace mentioned? You can reach us at metro@wamu.org or find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro. After the break, reimagining Baltimore's long befouled harbor.

LAURIE SCHWARTZ

It looks like grass is growing on the water, which they actually are. They have flotation devices underneath the grasses that support them.

BEN-ACHOUR

It's coming your way on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.

BEN-ACHOUR

Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Sabri Ben-Achour in today for Rebecca Sheir. Our theme today is New Beginnings so we've done politics, we've heard some personal stories and now we're going to dive into the environmental. After two centuries of industrial development, Baltimore's hard-edged inner harbor bears no resemblance to the lush wetlands that once covered the port.

BEN-ACHOUR

And technically, the harbor is not safe for diving or wading or swimming of any kind. Not by a long shot, it has bacteria levels around five times the safe limit for humans plus nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage that leaks into water from 100 year old pipes. The city's trying to deal with that, slowly replacing those leaky pipes, for example. But down by the south end of the harbor there's another idea being floated.

MR. ANDY FREEMAN

We're at the Harbor View Marina just overlooking the Domino Sugar Factory and we're looking at about 1.6 acres of open water.

BEN-ACHOUR

Andy Freeman is with Baltimore Marine Centers, which owns a bunch of marinas. He's looking at an open expanse of water lined by iron and concrete pylons and barriers along the shore.

FREEMAN

Our concept is to put a floating wetland here.

BEN-ACHOUR

A floating wetland is, it's what it sounds like.

FREEMAN

Floating wetland essentially is the same thing as a natural wetland except that it uses a floating material that's made from recyclables and you can actually plant wetland type plants in this material, and it will grow.

BEN-ACHOUR

The same plastic bottles that trash the harbor can be turned into floats that hold mats of tall marsh grasses and, no, you cannot see the bottles.

FREEMAN

It would be a field of green, all types of plant material on it. There would be walkways throughout it so that people could actually enjoy it. I mean think of it as just, you know, a typical park, although this would be a very unique park.

BEN-ACHOUR

Baltimore Marine Centers is planning for 1.6 acres and maybe a lot more around the harbor. You can actually see what this would look like on a much smaller scale if you go to the World Trade Center on the inner harbor. Laurie Schwartz is with the Waterfront Partnership.

MS. LAURIE SCHWARTZ

It looks like grasses growing on the water, which they actually are as you can see, living and growing. And there are a few ducks that have adopted one wetland in particular.

BEN-ACHOUR

Schwartz's group helped put together this pilot floating wetland. Now yes, these green grassy floats are very pretty and ducks are cute but they actually might serve an environmental purpose. Adam Lindquist is also with the Waterfront Partnership.

MR. ADAM LINDQUIST

When it rains a lot of nutrients come down into the harbor and that causes algae blooms which eventually lead to fish kills and we some bad fish kills here this spring. And what these wetlands do is as the plants grow they help remove nutrients from the water.

BEN-ACHOUR

Now, there is no way that enough floating wetlands could be put in to clean all the water in Baltimore's Harbor but Bill Dennison says wetlands aren't something to scoff at. He's Vice President for Science Applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

MR. BILL DENNISON

The hidden secret to these floating wetlands is not visible to the naked eye but below the water surface. The surface area of the plastic structure that holds up the marsh plants is actually harboring a diverse array of organisms that are filtering the bay, little dark false mussels and barnacles and bacterial films that are really good at processing nutrients and removing them from the water column.

BEN-ACHOUR

He says it's unproven in practice and probably wouldn't work for the Bay as a whole, but for this little corner of the harbor, it might.

DENNISON

This could make a difference, particularly in a marina type area where it's even more choked off from natural flushing.

BEN-ACHOUR

At the very least, Dennison and other people argue, it'd be a cool place to take school kids and teach the public. But that is in Ideaville and we live in reality. Andy Freeman with Baltimore Marine Centers says he's not quite sure when these wetlands might actually happen.

FREEMAN

You know, we have an application in with the MDE. It's been almost a year and we have gotten these comments back. We've have answered the comments and we're not really sure what the next step is. We need the permit obviously in order to move forward.

BEN-ACHOUR

The Maryland Department of the Environment, or MDE, declined to grant an interview for this story but it did point out that by law it has to determine whether the floating wetlands would require any unnecessary dredging and particularly whether the piers and walkways are absolutely necessary.

BEN-ACHOUR

Freeman argues having a wetland park with no boardwalk is like having Central Park with nobody allowed to go into it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to approve the plan too. Joseph Davia is with the Army Corps of Engineers.

MR. JOSEPH DAVIA

We evaluate any structures, excavation or dredging in navigable waters of the U.S. and so primarily we are looking at navigation issues, safety issues, landowner issues, you know, how far channel-ward the structure is, is it anchored properly. Would these structures break loose if there were a storm event, are they being maintained properly?

BEN-ACHOUR

On top of all that the city has to approve the plan too and one of the major concerns of some city leaders is that the wetland might impede commercial redevelopment of the harbor. Everyone is meeting later this month to talk about it. And there appears to be a lot of confusion among both city and state regulators as to what the plan is.

BEN-ACHOUR

For example, they repeatedly told us there was an amphitheater that was going to be built but plans reviewed by WAMU 88.5 didn't show any structure like that. Laurie Schwartz with the Waterfront Partnership urges patience.

SCHWARTZ

Well, I think floating wetlands, unlike natural wetlands, are still a new concept and so the various government permitting entities want to make sure before they allow an entrepreneur to invest in a major installation wetlands that they can anticipate what challenges or issues or problems might crop up, so I'm not surprised it's taking some time for government regulators to learn more and think about and anticipate the issues that'll crop up with a much larger installation.

BEN-ACHOUR

You can see plans for the future and pictures of pilot wetlands at our website, metroconnection.org.

BEN-ACHOUR

We head back to D.C. now for the story of the world's newest nation and the man who represents that nation here in the District. South Sudan celebrated the first anniversary of its independence in July. Later that month, the country's first ambassador to Washington presented his credentials at the White House, which means diplomatic relations with the U.S. officially started. "Metro Connection's" Jacob Fenston sat down with Ambassador Akec Khoc to find out what it takes to start a new country.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

When I first visited the embassy of South Sudan, the building was in the middle of a fire drill, everyone crowding the sidewalks outside. The embassy of the world's newest country is holed up in a cramped sixth floor suite of a nondescript office block downtown.

AMBASSADOR AKEC KHOC

There's no room at all. You have seen the office building.

FENSTON

Ambassador Akec Khoc says this space was leased before South Sudan gained independence and now they've outgrown it but can't afford to move just yet. His country sits on large oil reserves but hasn't been able to export that oil this year because of an ongoing dispute with Sudan. It's one of the many thorny issues still being worked out after the two countries split last year.

FENSTON

I began my conversation with the ambassador by asking about the legacy of Sudan's brutal, decades long civil war.

FENSTON

The fighting over the past twenty something years displaced a lot of people. I've read the number five million people were displaced and that's in a country whose population is about ten million. You lived in exile yourself, why did you leave and what brought you back, now to Washington representing your new nation?

KHOC

Many people were exiled because of the conflict. It was an issue of economic marginalization, social marginalization and no respect for human rights, basic human rights. And therefore whoever could not agree with the government at that time had to choose between silence or active opposition.

KHOC

And I did participate in the liberation struggle but also I found myself as a refugee in France. But as soon as peace came to Sudan there was no more reason for one to remain abroad, so many went back. I went back. I was fortunately integrated into the Foreign Service. Because when I was in France I also represented the Sudan people's liberation movement.

FENSTON

Was that a hard decision, you said it was sort of a decision, you know, people had to choose between silence or speaking up and then being, you know, facing the consequences of that. Was it a hard decision to leave and how did you decided to that?

KHOC

It was certainly a hard decision to abroad yourself to start a new life where you are not sure what you are going to meet. It's not an easy decision to make and particularly if it involves taking other members of the family then the risks are very high.

FENSTON

Is one of the challenges of, you know, building a new nation, sort of living up to expectations, because there was such sort of celebration at independence and after the referendum for independence? Is it hard to live up to those expectations, is that a challenge now, you know, a year after independence?

KHOC

It is a great challenge, simply because expectation, when it is not met, then it turns into disappointment. And the expectation for South Sudan from South Sudanese people has been tremendous and great.

FENSTON

You've lived in Washington off and on for a few years, what are your impressions of the city? What are your thoughts about living here?

KHOC

I love living in D.C. because it is open. The roads are wider than in many other towns and all the service that you may need is available.

FENSTON

You've gotten to see, as well, the presidential election process up close this season. Has that been interesting?

KHOC

It is very interesting for the content of democracy in America. We have so much to learn because we are a new nation and we want to do it right from the beginning, including elections presidential or legislative. I am learning, this is what makes America a great nation.

FENSTON

Ambassador Akec Khoc, thanks so much for talking with me.

KHOC

Thank you very much and it is my honor.

BEN-ACHOUR

That was South Sudan's new ambassador to Washington, Akec Khoc, speaking with Jacob Fenston.

BEN-ACHOUR

And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Emily Berman and Kavitha Cardoza along with reporter Heather Taylor. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Raphaella Bennin. Lauren Landau and Raphaella Bennin produce "Door to Door." Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

BEN-ACHOUR

Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts," our "Door to Door" theme "No, Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can see all the music we use on our website, metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.

BEN-ACHOUR

Also on metroconnection.org you can find our Twitter and Facebook links, you can read free transcripts of stories and if you missed part of today's show you can hear the whole thing by clicking the this week on "Metro Connection" link. To hear our most recent episodes, click the podcast link or find us on iTunes.

BEN-ACHOUR

We hope you can join us next week when we'll bring you a show all about House and Home. We'll go house-hunting at a former prison and we'll spend some time on the streets with a D.C. woman who walks around town all night with her baby because she has no place to call home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE

And I'm even calling a shelter hotline at night. Like, Ma'am, I'm outside with my kid right now. I have nowhere to go. My son is two months old, you know, I have nowhere.

BEN-ACHOUR

I'm Sabri Ben-Achour and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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