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Richard Nowak's crew of young volunteers don't spend Saturday morning playing video games or watching TV — they pick up garbage for birds.

Last weekend they removed contaminating trash from the pond at Sugar House Park, an urban habitat for ducks and geese, one of several targeted for cleanup this summer as part of the United Way of Salt Lake's Summer of Service project.

The annual project teaches children the value of giving back to their communities, and makes a measurable difference, said Nowak, assistant director for the Aviation Sanctuary and Protection group. "In 2012 a lot of birds died in that park from botulism. No birds died last year because of that project."

Trash is a threat because it breeds bacteria, which leak into the dirt and water. The birds also occasionally eat small items. "Birds don't identify if it's food or not and they swallow it and it punctures their intestine," Nowak said.

Summer of Service draws hundreds of kids each year, ages 5 to 18 in Davis, Tooele, Salt Lake and Summit counties, who put in thousands of volunteer hours. Medals are awarded for the most service — bronze for five hours, silver for 10 hours and gold for 25 hours.

The first 250 kids to complete their hours and turn in a service journal are invited to attend an end-of-summer celebration at Boondocks.

"It's great for them to get away from all of their fun summer activities and realize they need to give back a little," said Arminda Spencer of North Salt Lake. Her two step-children helped make dental hygiene kits at Granger Elementary School last weekend. After finishing the project faster than anticipated, they also cleaned the school playground. 

Approximately 350 kids turned in volunteer journals last summer with an average of 8,650 service hours total.

Meagan Mitchell was 11 last summer when she helped plant and weed a community garden for her project.

"It felt good to know I was helping, and I learned a lot too," Mitchell said in her service journal. "I learned that when we do service for others we can grow ourselves. I learned that service can be hard work, but it is always worth it in the end."

Other opportunities include set-up and take-down for the Twilight Concert Series, cleaning grounds around churches and helping seniors with yardwork.

Kids are also encouraged to develop their own ideas, according to United Way's website.

To register for Summer of Service, visit:

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