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We know our youth are the future.  We know that they hold a special power to help us adults see what is right before us and to answer the call to be better and do more.  At Trellis, we are fortunate to be able to see examples of the power of youth at work every day.  On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel of young people encouraging their peers to act on climate change.  Eleanor VanRheenen, a senior from Conestoga High School, talked about her inspiration to act on climate and how that manifests in her life.  In hindsight, I wish we had recorded the panel (they were all excellent!).  In lieu of having a recording, Eleanor gave me permission to share what she presented with you.  I hope you will find a few minutes to read what she wrote and to let the beauty and power of her words find their way to your heart. – Jennifer Anderson, Executive Director

What We Can Do  by Eleanor VanRheenen

To me, the great thing about an event like this is that we can all come together to compare ideas and notes about what we do to protect the environment. Maybe we each hear something big or small that we can take away to apply in our own lives.

So, I want to share some things I do as a high school student to care for the environment and talk about a few things we can all do, no matter our age. I specifically want to share 4 or 5 things I do in my life.

But before I get into that, I want to talk about what motivates me to care for the earth. The motivating factor for me is a love of nature. I’ll explain a little bit how this motivating factor expresses itself in what I do. The point I want to make here is that this motivating factor is always with me and doing things that align with it feels easy and natural. And tied to who I am as a person.

I want to ask you to reflect on why specifically you care for the environment and how you express that care. Understanding what your motivations are helps you figure out things you can do that are sustainable for you. Things that can easily become habits because they align with your beliefs or motivating passions and have a degree of ease and permanence to them.

It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to do everything you possibly could. 100% commitment to and action on environmentalism is not required to make a difference. Even tiny little partial changes in our consumption or behavior can be significant over time. The things that we each decide to do to help can fit within the lives we have and don’t need to be radical.

I mentioned that I love nature and find motivation in this love to take green steps in my life. I’ve had this love of nature since I was young. I really love being barefoot outside. Actually, one of my parents’ favorite stories about me as a kid is about my dislike for shoes. They say it was impossible to get me to keep them on. I wanted to be able to feel the grass with my feet as I was playing.

This love of nature may not be the reason that motivates you. There are lots of different reasons people are environmentally conscious, but it is helpful to be in touch with what your motivators are. Are they based on scientific data? On economic studies? On keeping yourself and your family healthy? On a moral sense of right and wrong? Or something else? Knowing what motivates you will allow you to identify what steps you can take that will be authentic for you and therefore sustainable for you.

I’ve mentioned that there are several things I want to talk about that even kids like me can do.

The first thing that I do is really acting on my passion and being in nature. Spending time intentionally enjoying and appreciating the outdoors. This is about being in touch with my own love for the nature and allowing it to be front and center in my thoughts regularly. I like to spend a lot of time at Valley Forge National Park. Lately, as it’s been getting colder; I’ll go there, wrap myself in a blanket, and just spend time alone with nature, enjoying its beauty and fragility and strength. Keeping myself outside appreciating nature gives me the regular reminders I need to arrange my life in small but increasing ways that protect and preserve nature.

In this area, it can sometimes be hard to see the direct effects of climate change that other places in the world might experience. But being in touch with nature, my motivator, makes it easier to think about and be inspired to do other things to help the environment.

I want to describe a few of the more specific things to do. These are not hard or even unusual. But they are each tied to my love for nature.

Daily activities around the house can be a place to be greener. I can draw upon my love of nature as I do things around the house. In my life, this means using reusable grocery bags, for example. In my family, we also try not to buy unnecessary items. So, we still some of the same furniture that my parents had in college. Our house is also powered by 100% renewable energy. My dad drives a Chevy Bolt, which is an electric car, and I drive a hybrid. And, of course, we are very deliberate about recycling. Some of these things are easier to do than others, so even making a couple of these choices can be impactful. And some are things that high school kids don’t have control over but are things we can think about as we move into the adult world.

A third thing I’ve done is think about my diet. I spent time learning about the impacts of food production on the earth. This led me to think about the things I eat and the impact that buying those things has. Before reading and learning about these impacts, I didn’t think critically about my food consumption very much. But, it’s actually one of the single biggest things you can do to reduce your environmental impact.

I have since altered my diet. First going vegetarian, and eventually deciding to cut out all animal products and go vegan. Some people may make this choice for health or for moral reasons, but for me, it’s about having a smaller footprint.

Altering your diet this much isn’t required to reduce impact. Even eating less red meat or cheese can reduce impact in significant ways. I would encourage people to think about occasionally choosing a plant-based option.

At school, I have found a few easy things I can do to reduce my environmental impact. For example, I carry my own reusable utensils for lunch. I also use reusable plastic bags, containers, and water bottles. These things require very little effort from me.

And finally, another part of how I show my care for the environment is by getting involved with others who share this interest. Most often, this is through a club at my school called Greening Stoga Task Force.

At the end of last year, we set a few concrete goals for this year. Our biggest goal was eliminating Styrofoam usage in our cafeteria. Styrofoam is not biodegradable, is made using nonrenewable resources, and is not easily recyclable. Our club has been working towards this goal for many years, so we projected that it would take at least a year to achieve it.

Our members, along with a couple passionate parents in the district, made a plan to achieve this goal. We started over the summer with lots of research. The parents and members of our club spent a lot of time understanding the process of purchasing utensils and plates. We also researched lots of alternatives.

When school started, our members attended and spoke at school board meetings and with administration frequently. The administration began to see the merits of our arguments and how much we kids cared about it and actions started to be taken.

Just recently, we actually made the complete switch in our cafeteria away from Styrofoam. This was a huge step for us.

And it now opens the rest of the year for us to focus on more eco-friendly changes we can make in our school, and we have a few plans.

One is that we are working on making the utilities at our school greener. Our members recently attended the facilities meeting, where they discussed this goal. The school is considering hiring the help of a nonprofit organization called the Green Restaurant. This organization evaluates the efficiency of the utilities at schools or restaurants and helps them find greener alternatives. Other schools in our area, like Shipley, have used the Green Restaurant.

Another of our goals is to give younger kids more information about the environment. So, we are currently planning a field trip to some of the local elementary schools. We hope to organize a small science lab experiment to do with them or something to get them involved with the environment.

We are all very busy. As a high schooler, I have many demands from academics to sports to clubs and other interests to college applications. It can be hard to find the time to always prioritize the environment. But by each figuring out what motivates us and what little things we can do, individually or together, that are consistent with that motivation, we can make a big impact.