Tristan Gant likes bugs.

Beetles. Spiders. Butterflies. Anything he can find in the small dirt lot behind the Rite Aid next to where he lives in East Camden.

He collects them in Tupperware and sets them on his grandmother's table near the window. There, he examines them with his magnifying glass, takes notes, and compares them with photos from his bug books. Sometimes, he takes his own pictures before letting them go in the lot.

"I want to be an animal scientist," he said.

Lately, when combing through the lot, Tristan has found it hard to find anything but cockroaches and flies among all the trash, needles, and purple plastic baggies left behind by drug users.

Sometimes, he turns over a rock or digs into the ground and finds baggies still filled with drugs.

"They bury them and come back in a few hours and dig them back up," he said.

When this happens, Tristan watches from behind a piece of wood that separates his yard from the lot and waits till the drug users and "hobos," as he calls them, leave. Then he goes back to looking for bugs.

"There used to be more good bugs," he said. "Now there are less better ones and more pests."

The world opens up

This fall, Tristan, 12, was walking down a hallway at East Camden Middle School, where he is in the seventh grade, when he saw some friends sitting in Miss Sabb's science classroom.

"Come in," a friend told him.

It was one of the first meetings of an after-school program run by students at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Farhad Modarai, 25, a second-year med student from Gloucester Township, invited Tristan to introduce himself.

"I like bugs," Tristan said to the other kids' laughter.

Modarai asked Tristan what scared him most about Camden.

"The drugs," he said.

During a series of sessions throughout the school year, the med students taught the students about drug abuse and smoking, teen pregnancy and STDs, obesity and asthma. They took the students to a 76ers game. It was Tristan's first time.

"The Sixers got 106," Tristan said. "The other team got 94."

As part of the program, Modarai and his classmate Hyun Hong, 26, asked the students to develop neighborhood health-related projects. One student is designing a cancer-awareness Web site for kids. Others are organizing diabetes screenings.

Tristan had his own idea.

"He came in here and said he wanted to paint the wall and clean the lot," said Rob Blair, who manages the Rite Aid that Tristan plays behind. Blair thought it was a good idea.

"We have a maintenance crew that comes out twice a month, and they have to use blowers to blow away all the drug baggies," he said. "It's a shame."

The neighborhood

Tristan is short for his age and shy, has pointy bangs, and fidgets with his glasses.

"I've been collecting bugs since I was 2," he said.

He lives in an apartment above an empty storefront church on Federal Street with his little brother, mother, father, and grandmother. A big oak in Tristan's backyard, sprouting leaves now, has an old wooden birdhouse and tire swing. Tristan likes playing in his yard with his cocker spaniels, Gizmo and Cosmo, and his guinea pigs, Kirby and Kerry Ann, but the lot behind the Rite Aid used to have grass and small plants that were great for finding bugs.

Once, he found a jumping spider. It had long legs and scary eyes. He took it inside.

"It was female," he said. "The big white ones are female. The small black ones are male."

He put some grass and leaves and lettuce in with the spider, but it wouldn't eat, so he put a bumble bee in, too.

"I wanted to see what would happen," he said. "The spider got all still and then jumped on the bee and killed it with its poison. It was scary."

The lot behind the Rite Aid is about 60 feet wide. There is a wall and some concrete where Tristan and his brother, Jordan, and his friends Christopher and Jamal play the ball game "suicide." They throw a rubber ball against the wall, and when someone drops it they have to run for the wall for safety.

In recent years, the bigger kids have spray-painted the wall with gang graffiti, Tristan said.

"Sometimes when you lean against it, the paint gets on your shirt," he said. "The ball gets sticky, too, and there's all this negative stuff and curse words."

One time Tristan was catching fireflies when a man dragged a mattress onto the lot and went to sleep.

Many of the streets around 27th and Federal are relatively clean and safe, said Dave Garrison a member of District Council Collaborative Board 3, which covers East Camden. But a new drug sect has been gaining ground in the neighborhood, he said.

"They are expanding their territory," he said.

Tristan measures the growth of the drug gang by the amount of trampled grass and garbage in the lot where he once found so many good bugs.

He knows that baby beetles live in the small corner of the lot not littered in trash, and that baby maggots live under the rocks near where the drug baggies cover the ground like confetti.

"Gross," he said, kicking at the baggies.

Making things better

Thursday was the final day before spring break, and Tristan was excited. At dismissal, he and a dozen classmates gathered in Miss Sabb's classroom with the UMDNJ students and painting supplies.

By the time the group made it to the lot, a dozen more neighborhoods kids had joined.

Modarai, taking away an afternoon away from his study sessions for the medical boards, handed out paintbrushes, rollers, and gloves, and the kids began to splash yellow paint over the graffiti.

"We wanted to teach the kids," he said. "But we also wanted to empower them."

Older students, such as eighth grader Nigeria Crump, 13, painted the high portions of the wall, while Tristan and his two young cousins, Sean, 9, and David, 5, stood on their toes.

"Get some on the wall, too," Tristan told paint-covered David.

Tristan's mom, Shushana, brought out glasses of fruit punch. Modarai rolled a big magnet over the lot (in case of any needles), and the kids raked away the trash.

Wearing a fruit-punch mustache and paint-speckled glass, Tristan stood on a big rock. He looked happy.

Then his mom called him inside to clean off some of the paint before he came back outside to search for bugs.

More Information

To learn more about the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey's Project REACH (Revitalizing Education and Advancing Camden's Health) and other community health projects for children visit http://reach.umdnj.edu/

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Contact staff writer Mike Newall at 856-779-3237 or mnewall@phillynews.com.