By Maeve Hall, James River Leadership Academy student

Our nation has recently been reminded that student leaders have the capacity to create powerful movements that force us to rethink the ways in which we deal with important issues facing our country, and the world. The James River Leadership Academy (JRLA) understands the importance of my generation’s voice and encourages us to raise them to solve the problems of global warming and the erosion of environmental standards. Without an education, appreciation, and advocacy for nature, these problems will continue to persist, and the effects will only get worse. JRLA taught me the skills to feel empowered in my own community, and I learned the most fundamental aspects of being a good leader: organization, communication, and cooperation. By giving students the experience and resources to create their own community action project, they are empowering the next generation of environmental advocates!

I began my JRLA journey with a weeklong trip to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, an island in James River. I was pretty nervous at first to meet the other JRLA students from all over the state, but from the first boat ride to the island, I could tell this was going to be a great group of people! As I got to know them better, I was continuously impressed with my new friends’ passion for the environment and helping others. We clicked so well, and I still consider myself lucky to have gotten to know such funny, kind, and down to earth people.

On the island, we participated in a service project to clean up our bunk’s grey water garden, used a net to catch and observe local fish, and paddled through the beautiful wetlands, identifying the plants and animals around us along the way! We got the chance to go for a sunrise hike in the morning, where we saw the abundance of wildlife, especially birds, that the island has to offer, (we even ran into a pack of wild turkeys, which was actually so cool!). One of my favorite memories was the evening when were able to go for a night hike. We witnessed a field of twinkling fireflies and heard chatty owls and even a few coyotes, who thankfully, never paid us a visit! Each night was completed around a bonfire, making s’mores and sharing our favorite memories and stories from each day of the trip. One of the main goals of the program is to help each student understand what type of leader they are, in the hopes that we could use that knowledge when communicating with people during our community action project. Throughout the program, we worked with a professional Luckstone leadership advisor, who helped us uncover how we best communicate with people, and in what social situations we feel the most comfortable. The insight I got from those activities about myself was tremendously helpful when it came to communicating with my mentor, the administration at my school, and several teachers when organizing my project. Throughout this experience, everyone shared special moments of learning and bonding that ignited our friendships. That week of being surrounded by magnificent scenes of nature reminded me of all the reasons I love being outdoors, and all the reasons to preserve it.

The weeklong Presquile trip was just the beginning of the JRLA experience! Each student was tasked with creating their own community action project that would have a positive impact on the environment in some way. This gave us a lot of flexibility, and each student made their project fit their specific interest. I have always loved creative writing, so when I learned about grant writing it seemed like a natural fit! We were given all the tools we needed to do our project, including $250 budget that the program provided. For each project, students were connected with a mentor who specialized in what the students were working on. When I expressed an interest in pursuing grant writing as a way to get funds for my project, I was connected with the Beth Roach, the Grant Manager for the James River Association, to be my mentor. Having such a kind, helpful, and professional teacher throughout the process gave me a comprehensive understanding of the grant world. I now know an extremely beneficial skill, and have an awesome lifelong mentor that I have had the pleasure of working with on several grants and projects since my original JRLA one!

Inspired by the great experience I had at Presquile over the summer, I became aware that several students who wanted to come on our annual trip to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, were not able to because they could not afford it. This seemed incredibly unfair to me, as I believe that every student should be entitled to formative learning experiences in nature that trips, like the one to Presquile, provides. So I decided to center my project for the James River Leadership Academy last year, around crafting a grant application so that every student in my school’s Ecology Club would be able to attend the amazing experience of visiting Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, at a discounted price. I also asked for additional funds to buy trash clean-up kits, and money to install storm drain murals around the Monacan High School campus. I titled my grant application, “Teens Leading Change” because it felt fitting with the goal of the JRLA!

Last year my grant was chosen, and we were awarded $1,900 by the Chesapeake Bay Trust to go to Presquile and buy the materials we needed to continue our trash cleanups and further creative environmental advocacy! It was so moving to see students who otherwise might not have been able to afford it, go on that trip and have an enjoyable, educational experience out in nature with their friends! Since last year’s trip was such a success, I have reapplied for that same grant in an effort sustain this program and continue allowing every student who has the interest to be able to attend, no matter their financial situation. We were also able to buy trash kits that we have used to clean up Monacan High School’s campus and the surrounding residential community six times this year. We also used some of the grant money to install 4 storm drain murals around Monacan, which was a fun and interactive experience that beautified our school, while also raising awareness about the serious effects trash can have on local wildlife.

Since presenting my project at our JRLA graduation ceremony, I have taken the skills I learned and extrapolated it into other parts of my life. I did a summer internship at the James River Association in the Grant Department with my mentor, which exposed me to possible career paths in nonprofits. I am also now the President of my school’s Ecology Club. My experience with James River Leadership Academy gave me confidence in my ability to be a leader on my terms. I have always walked the line between being identifying as an introvert and extrovert. working on this project taught me that by embracing both parts of myself, I can lead in my own way. If you are at all interested in the environment or want to learn more about being a leader, I strongly recommend you to apply for the James River Leadership Academy. I am incredibly grateful to this experience for starting me on a path of environmental stewardship and activism and helping me to find my voice. Now, we need to hear your voice!

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