On Saturday, May 6, high school students from around the James River watershed celebrated the culmination of a year’s worth of adventure, teambuilding, and work. The graduation ceremony took place at Luck Stone’s Goochland headquarters, and featured a welcoming speech by Mark Williams (Environmental Manager at Luck Stone), and a keynote speech by Giles Garrison (Superintendent of James River Parks System).

This 2022-2023 cohort of the James River Leadership Expedition began their adventure nearly a year ago. In Summer 2022, they participated in a week-long camping and canoeing Expedition along a portion of the James River. Though it varies somewhat year-to-year, we typically offer three Expedition options – in the Upper, Middle, and Lower James. Each Expedition presents a unique mix of challenges to technical skill, river knowledge, strength, endurance, Inner Will leadership training, and teamwork. 

In November, the separate Expedition groups united for an overnight at the Ecology School on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge. They brainstormed their Capstone projects, paddled along the tranquil wetlands of the refuge, reconnected with old friends, and made new ones!

In January, they met again for a day to further develop their projects. Under the guidance of James River Association education staff and mentors, the students designed and enacted a project that would benefit the James River in their community.

 Over the spring, each student designed and implemented their project. Their approach varied according to their individual interests and gifts – some students designed educational activities in partnership with elementary and middle schools, others planted riparian buffers, and still others created informative murals about urgent issues affecting the health of the river.

Fostering our next river stewards…

Our James River Leadership Expeditions program provides local high school students with a network of support that paves the way for leadership development, relationship building, and future education and career goals. The program also helps to foster a deeper appreciation for our natural resources and the desire to make them a priority in their day-to-day lives. Your gift helps to create our river stewards of tomorrow.

A few examples of the students’ projects include:

  • Hollin Smith worked with her soccer club to put up a sign educating the public about the floodplain the field is set in, and how impacts to the environment around the soccer field (such as fertilizer and tree-cutting) can impact the Rivanna River and ultimately the James. As the size of the soccer club grows, it can pose a greater risk of degrading the environment. Her project taught her that she had the power to speak up in that situation and guide the soccer club to more environmentally friendly choices.
  • Ben Butterfield created 10 nesting boxes for Prothonotary Warblers, a migratory bird species whose population is threatened by climate change and habitat loss. He worked with researchers at VCU to arrange the boxes’ installation. By tying into an existing project, he made wise use of resources and mentors available, and took their work a step further by creating a geocache that educated the public about these unique and memorable birds.
  • Catriona Flynn created a portable american shad mural featuring landmarks around the Richmond region. Additionally, she added a QR code in the corner so viewers can scan the code and be directed to JRA’s web page about American Shad. She coordinated with event planners, and her mural was displayed May 20-21 at River Rock at JRA’s booth. Her project taught her construction and painting skills, as well as time management. 

In addition to the environmental knowledge the students gained along the way, they also practiced professional skills – such as email communication, project management, and advocating for themselves – that will serve them well in their future paths. 

Finally that brings us back to May 6, when they gathered to present their projects and celebrate their completion of the James River Leadership Expedition. It is a bittersweet transition – it marks the end of this unique year-long experience, but for many of them, this will be the beginning of a lifelong love of the environment, and some qualities – creativity, follow-through, and time management – that will stick with them through the rest of their lives.

Even as the 2022-2023 cohort says their farewells, the upcoming 2023-2024 cohort – our biggest cohort yet, at 36 students! – prepares to embark on their Expeditions. What projects will this next generation of river advocates create, I wonder?

Special thanks to our JRLE alums, their families, the mentors and guest speakers, and to our partners across the James River Watershed who help bring this transformative experience to life. We are especially thankful to Luck Stone for funding the Leadership Expedition, and for their passion for values-based leadership!

Does this program sound exciting to you, or to a high school student in your life? Though the 2023-2024 cohort is already selected, please check out our program here! We’d love to work with you in the future.