Earth day, which falls each year on April 22, marks the birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970’s. Often, Earth Day is part of a larger week of events programmed as Earth Week, and is commemorated by an outdoors, spring-themed festival. This year, as we engage in a celebration of all our environment gives us, let's remember that we, too, are part of our environment and have a responsibility to ensure its health into the future. As advocates of nature, we have to carry the joy and love of Earth Day forward throughout the rest of the year, by committing to concrete and sustainable actions. The 4th, 5th and 6th grade students of River Valley Charter School set a prime example of what stewardship rooted in joy and care can look like, and we can learn a lot from what they’re doing.
Since COVID-19 forced us to reevaluate and adapt the way we can teach and carry out outdoors education, the River Valley Charter School students have been doing half days out at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge. They’ve met in an outdoor classroom week after week, explored the grounds, observed the flora and fauna that live there, and cemented a deep bond with the space that they will carry throughout the rest of their lives.
This bond became most evident very recently, as the 6th graders organized debris clean-up days at the river mouth and basin. Their anxieties about the impacts of plastic pollution in the river and oceans were activated following the snow melt earlier in the spring, which left behind significant piles of urban debris that were being washed away into the storm drains.
The students organized a Clean-Up Day on March 27th. This was the first of various events meant to engage the public, including boaters and others who consistently make use of the river waterways, in an effort to keep trash from entering the Gulf of Maine. Other clean up events will follow into May.
Kaeliegh Belanger, one of the 6th graders who joined River Valley Charter School lead teacher Ellen Link at a virtual Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, was so incensed at what she had learned and how it affected the ecosystem that she worked for two weeks to refine a grant proposal meant to support clean up efforts at the North end of Plum Island at the mouth of the Merrimack River. Her efforts paid off, and she received a $200 grant to purchase materials like bags, grabbers, flyers and gloves. Ms. Belanger has garnered support of the Newburyport Mayor, Donna Holaday, and they have approved a clean up date of May 15th (with a May 22 rain date).
Kaeliegh’s efforts, however, aren’t the only ones making an impact. The 4th and 5th graders also received a grant of $89 to support cleaning the nesting habitat of horseshoe crabs. Part of their work will involve educating the public and their peers about the importance of horseshoe crabs both to their ecosystem and to human health. Horseshoe crab eggs are an important part of the coastal ecosystem’s food-chains— they are consumed by various shorebirds, including the red knot, which is a species at risk. Compounds in horseshoe crab blood are also used in vaccines, including the ones against COVID-19.
A different group of students also came up with a debris-reduction campaign called “Seachange: be the change, sea the change,” meant to stop the flow of cigarette butts from streets into the ocean. They covered used coffee cans with blue tape and filled them with sand, then left them in strategic locations (parking lots, plazas) to encourage passerby to dispose of their cigarette butts responsibly.
These students' efforts just go to show how important it is for youth to connect to their environment. After all, if we love and connect with something, we are much more likely to take care of and advocate for it. They’re also a great example of something we already knew: our youth are a force to be reckoned with! When given the adequate support and resources, students are able to rally and show up, not just for the environment, but for each other. Their creativity is unmatched, and their spirit contagious. Way to go, River Valley Charter School students! And hooray for dedicated, exemplary teachers, who can support and push for student empowerment.