Looking to kids to clean up Earth

One of Danni Washington’s earliest memories is going to Miami Beach with her mom. It was through that experience at age 6 that her love for the water began.

“I wanted to share that love with others and inspire them to also love it,” Washington, 28, recalled.

In 2008, Washington’s passion led her and her mother, Michelle, to found The Big Blue and You, a nonprofit dedicated to educating young people about conservation through media and the arts. Its most noted event, Artsea, is a daylong festival where kids recycle beach trash and repurpose it for art.

In keeping with its mission to involve young people, The Big Blue and You has a youth board made up of high school and college students.

“They are the ones who do a lot of the work to make it happen because this organization is for kids by kids,” Washington said.

She is part of a growing movement to educate youth about water conservation and climate change. She said the more millennials are educated on this topic, the greater the impact will be.

“Some people seem apathetic about it because they think it’s not going to make a difference,” Washington said. “That’s why I think engaging young people specifically is so important because there is a certain level of optimism with this generation.”

Conservation Education from Trevor Green on Vimeo.

Also looking to future generations is Caroline Lewis, a former teacher and principal for 22 years. In 2002, Lewis joined the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden as director of education and created The Fairchild Challenge.

This program encourages elementary, middle and high school students to generate newsletters, create political environmental cartoons and restore gardens.

Schools receive points for each challenge they complete to build environmental awareness in their community. There is an award for the top-scoring school, and the competition is strong.

Lewis said the challenge remains successful and helps schools encourage otherwise disengaged students to understand what is happening to their environment and teaches them the importance of tropical plants and gardening.

Today, Lewis is executive director and founder of The CLEO Institute (Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities), which helps different age groups understand climate change and its effects. Its Youth Task Force educates students through events, forums and training to help them inform their peers about climate change.

Lewis said students often take home what they learn in these programs and get their parents involved.

“There is a reasonable belief that if we reach the kids, we reach their parents,” said Lewis.

Schools across South Florida are also providing students with access to environmental science programs.

TERRA Environmental Research Institute and two Maritime and Science Technology schools (MAST) academies offer curricula focused on conservation and biological control.

TERRA, located in Kendall, allows students to choose from three academies, including environmental research and field studies, engineering and robotics and biomedical research.

The two MAST Academies, Virginia Key and Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus, focus on maritime science and technology. The Biscayne Bay location partners with FIU’s School of Environment, Arts and Society, to give students hands-on experience in the marine sciences.

While programs like these and The Fairchild Challenge educate students within school settings, Washington said more non-school based programs are needed.

“Teachers have so much on their plates already, and there is so much that they have to cover and complete before the end of the school year,” Washington said. “I know it’s really tough on them to add more to their plate. That’s why we try to supplement and provide opportunities outside of the classroom to give kids great experiences.”

For those young people who feel as if their involvement won’t make a difference in conservation efforts, Washington has a message.

“You have a bright future ahead of you,” Washington said. “This Earth belongs to you, too, so let’s all figure out a way to work together to make sure it’s good for everyone.”