If you think all teens want to do is hang out at the mall, think again. The 14 extraordinary winners of Action For Nature’s International Young Eco-Heroes Award for 2010 aren’t shopping for cute boots. They’re designing and building environmental centers, keeping water supplies safe, reforesting their communities and educating their peers. With creativity, drive and a deep concern for the future of the planet, they are tackling some of the globe’s most urgent problems with kid power.
Every year since 2003, Action For Nature (AFN), a U.S.-based nonprofit, has recognized young people ages 8-16 who are taking important steps to solve tough environmental problems. Youth from countries around the world, hoping to be selected, send in their stories and explain their work. A panel of judges including experts in environmental science, biology and education determines the year’s winners. Each receives a cash prize, a certificate and other benefits.
Here's a look at this year's top winners:
Sarah Jo Lambert: Lubbock, Texas (First Place)
When 16-year-old Sarah Jo Lambert of Texas decided to go green two years ago, she had a big vision. In addition to wanting to provide local teachers with an environmental curriculum, she also wanted to build an environmental education center at a camp near her home. She knew she couldn’t tackle it alone, so she forged partnerships with youth groups and local companies.
Working with EarthCo Building Systems, Sarah Jo spent more than 425 hours helping build the earth block construction eco-center over two years. She learned to drive a backhoe and dump truck, and she worked on the construction tasks alongside the builders. She recruited more than 2,000 people to help build and/or donate to her cause, and together they volunteered more than 1,000 hours of work.
When the eco-center was completed in spring 2010, she named it the Lorax Lodge, after a Dr. Seuss character. “Even though Dr. Seuss used all these crazy words, he really knew what he was talking about,” Sarah Jo said. “He knew how to get kids involved.”
Gates Bierhuizen: Culpeper, Va. (Third place)
When the grandfather of 15-year-old Gates Bierhuizen of Virginia passed away a year ago, the family wasn’t sure how to dispose of his unused medications. One family member suggested flushing the pills down the drain, but Gates didn't like the sound of that.
On a mission to find a better way to dispose of the pills, Gates reached out to many organizations including the local landfill, hospital, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. His research uncovered that improper disposal of pharmaceuticals contributed to water contamination and had a significant impact on the health of humans and wildlife. But what was the answer? “It became more and more apparent that no one had a solution,” he said.
So Gates took matters into his own hands. Partnering with a local agency and a reverse drug distributor, he founded a take-back program called STOP (Stop Throwing Out Pharmaceuticals). So far he has collected hundreds of pounds of pharmaceuticals and delivered them to the reverse drug distributor, which incinerates the drugs for energy.
Gates has also educated the public by creating brochures and reaching out to the public at health fairs and the local library. His long-term goal is to see legislation pass that will provide the public with a safer way to dispose of unwanted medications.
Liam Bane O’Neil: Durango, Colo. (Second place)
Every day, on his way home from school, 11-year-old Liam Bane O’Neil of Colorado passed an unused patch of land full of weeds. The lot belonged to a neighbor, and Bane saw potential.
With the support of his family, Bane received permission to use the land to start a large garden project. He received help from friends, and together they leveled the land and planted a sustainable, organic garden that serves both the community and the local wildlife. He also started community composting and made sure no weed killers or synthetic fertilizers were used, which would have contaminated local water supplies.
The outskirts of the garden feature plants for local wildlife (at times Bane has counted as many as 50 birds feasting on the sunflowers), while the fenced inside area serves as a vegetable garden. The community shares the bountiful harvest of locally produced food. “I’m most proud of having this garden and having all the support we had,” Bane says. “I just enjoy giving.”
Felix Finkbeiner: Paul, Germany (First place)
For 12-year-old Felix Finkbeiner of Germany, what started off as a small class presentation about deforestation and the need to plant trees quickly grew into a global youth effort to protect the environment. Felix told his classmates, “Let’s get children all over the world to plant 1 million trees in their countries.”
Felix began to present at schools across Germany, recruiting youth for his cause. Invited to speak at the 2009 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Tunza Conference in South Korea, he urged other youth to take up the cause around the world. About 500 youths from 54 countries responded.
Felix joined the United Nations organization, Plant-for-the-Project, where he now serves as a spokesperson. He was elected by youth to serve on the Tunza Junior Board, which advises UNEP on how to best appeal to and educate youth around the planet about environmental issues.
Already 1 million trees have been planted in Germany, and Felix continues his international effort to encourage young people in other countries to match his goal.