At the Delaware State Fair July 25, Gov. Jack Markell, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara and U.S. EPA Region III Administrator Shawn M. Garvin announced and honored five Delaware students as DNREC’s 2013 Young Environmentalists of the Year.
“These five exceptional young Delawareans are becoming the conservationists, naturalists and environmental stewards who will help preserve our environment for tomorrow,” Markell said. “We appreciate their interest, their talent and the promise they bring for Delaware’s future.”
“Age is no deterrent for these young students who want to protect our environment and improve our quality of life,” said O’Mara. “This year's award winners deserve our praise and admiration.”
Established in 1993 in honor of former DNREC Secretary Dr. Edwin H. Clark II, the Young Environmentalist of the Year Awards are presented annually to Delaware students who have worked to protect, restore or enhance our state’s natural resources through environmental stewardship, innovative projects and promoting public awareness.
Judges for the program’s 20th year were Jennifer Holmes, educator, Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve; Michelle Jacobs, educator and DNREC Small Business Ombudsman; Kent County Wildlife Area Manager Wayne Lehman, Division of Fish and Wildlife; and Environmental Scientist Patty Murray, DNREC Division of Water.
DNREC’s 2013 Young Environmentalists of the Year are:
• High School - Emma Rider of Milton
• Middle School - Kyle Spillane of Harrington
• Elementary - Sara Figurski of Georgetown
• Honorable Mention Group - the Zero Waste Team, Hockessin
High school winner Rider, 15, is a National Honor Society student who will be a junior at Sussex Technical High School in the fall. Emma also is involved in Junior ROTC, FFA, 4-H and her church. In 2008, while visiting her older brother on a mission trip, Emma was introduced to WaterStep, a nonprofit organization that works to educate the public about waterborne illnesses in third world countries with startling statistics such as “a child dies every 15 seconds due to waterborne illness.”
WaterStep fights this epidemic by collecting donated shoes and reselling them overseas to raise funds to install water chlorinators to provide safe drinking water in high-risk areas.
“Knowing about this crisis wasn’t enough. When I found out there was a pretty simple solution, I knew I wanted to help,” Emma said of her inspiration to start a local shoe drive. She has since collected and recycled nearly 70,000 pairs of shoes, keeping 35 tons out of Delaware landfills, and raising more than $30,000 for WaterStep - and counting, since the project is ongoing.
Late last year, Emma journeyed to an orphanage in Kenya on a mission to install a chlorinator purchased through her efforts, and made many new friends a world away from her farm home in Delaware.
“It brought me great joy to see purified water flow into the cups of children who have never tasted it before,” Emma said.
“The project she began in 2010 was the result of her desire to help reduce waterborne illnesses in third world countries,” wrote her nominator, Sussex Tech environmental instructor George Jefferson. “Little did Emma know, her project would ultimately benefit people around the world, all the while raising awareness of resource conservation and improving the local environment here in Delaware.”
“Wow! What an impressive young lady,” said Jacobs. “It’s one thing to express your concerns about the environment, and another to actually do something about it. Kudos to Emma for jumping into action, involving others, and inspiring and educating those she meets along the way.”
Middle school winner Kyle Spillane,13, of Harrington, will be an eighth grader at W.T. Chipman Middle School in the fall. He has been a dedicated and dependable volunteer with an interest in the environment from a very young age. This award adds to a growing list, and is in recognition of his volunteer work at the Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Dupont Nature Center near Milford, a science-based education and interpretive facility whose mission is to connect people with nature and instill an appreciation for the ecological significance of the Delaware Bayshore region.
Kyle joined the DuPont Nature Center’s Junior Volunteer program in 2009, and has since volunteered more than 500 hours there. Kyle assists the interpretive staff with field trips and guided tours, explaining the importance of protecting the habitats surrounding along the Mispillion Harbor and Delaware Bay. He also has created educational activity pages for children, along with various other educational displays which focus on the live animals living in the Center’s tanks.
“Kyle’s commitment and dedication to the DuPont Nature Center’s mission and the environment continually instills in people the desire to sense and respect the beauty of Delaware’s natural surroundings,” wrote DuPont Nature Center Manager Dawn Webb, who nominated Kyle.
“Kyle’s dedication to the environment, especially the Delaware Bay, is evident by his willingness to give up his own time to volunteer at the DuPont Nature Center,” said Judge Jennifer Holmes. “That is a poignant testimony of how important Delaware’s environment is to him.”
Lehman noted Kyle’s work today could serve him and the environment well in the future. “Kyle Spillane’s dedication to nature and the environment by providing hundreds of volunteer hours shows he has a high potential to become a leader in natural resource management in the future,” said Lehman.
Elementary school winner Figurski, 9, will start the fifth grade this fall at Eagles Nest Christian Academy. In her nomination, her father, Scott Figurski, noted that Sara has taken an interest in the environment from an early age, through activities including recycling, planting trees, making birdfeeders, rescuing tadpoles, butterflies and birds, participating in beach grass planting, and cleaning up trash.
“Sara has not been involved in one specific project, but practices environmental stewardship as a lifestyle at a young age,” Figurski wrote of Sara, noting she once forgot all about the fishing tournament in which she was participating to pull trash from the water out of concern for its potentially deadly impact on aquatic life, and has also been known to tell her friends and adults that they should not leave the water running when brushing teeth or washing hands because that wastes water.
Sara also enjoys photographing wildlife. “The hunt for the subject has helped give her an appreciation of the nature she is trying to capture,” Figurski wrote. “I have seen her show her friends wonders of nature like a spider web or dew drops on the petals of a flower. These are things that many children her age would not notice, and she is sharing these wonders and helping others develop an appreciation for them.”
The judges agreed. “It is wonderful to see how the younger generation is interacting and protecting the environment. Sarah’s involvement in conservation issues and her talent for outdoor photography is inspiring,” said Holmes. “The future of the environment looks bright with young people such as Sara already practicing environmental stewardship,” added Jacobs.
“Sarah Figurski’s appreciation of nature and the environment will hopefully increase environmental awareness to all who cross her path in the future,” Lehman said.
The judges also awarded special recognition to the Zero Waste Team, a group of middle schoolers from Hockessin who pioneered Delaware’s first residential curbside collection of compostable organics in the Charter Oaks neighborhood. Representing the team for the award was Eric Long and Daniel DiMascio, both 13, and team advisor Martine Long.
The team formed in 2012 to investigate the possibility of diverting organics from the household waste stream as a possible solution for shrinking landfill space in the First State. Working with commercial hauler Allied Waste and 16 Charter Oaks households, the team engineered a 12-week pilot program that started in January 2013, and diverted more than a ton of organics from the landfill with a cumulative organics diversion rate of 56.6 percent. Given the program’s success, Allied Waste agreed to continue the program as an ongoing service for Charter Oaks residents. As of late June, 23 households were participating and 2.5 tons of organics had been diverted from New Castle County’s Cherry Island Landfill, with the team offering training for additional households to join.
The Zero Waste Team’s immediate goal is to complete four pilots in different developments encompassing 160 households by June 2014, and to prove a cumulative organics diversion rate of at least 50 percent, diverting 10 tons of organics per calendar quarter.
Judges were impressed by the Zero Waste Team’s innovation, initiative and scientific approach. “The Zero Waste Team’s investigation into the feasibility of diverting organics from landfills was interesting and innovative,” Murray said. “It’s impressive that they have provided details on the amount of organics diverted from the landfills to the economic benefits of doing so. I envision future environmental leaders from this group.”
“This is a model project which not only included reducing compostable waste entering our landfills but also provided education and outreach to the community,” Holmes said. “I look forward to seeing how this program could be implemented other places in the state.”
For more information on the Young Environmentalist of the Year Awards, contact Joanna Wilson, DNREC Public Affairs, 302-739-9902, or firstname.lastname@example.org.