Youth Climate Leaders Academy

On Thursday, November 15th, six Oyster River students set off to attend the Youth Climate Leaders Academy for an overnight kickoff to a year long project. The event took place at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont, and Oyster River students were accompanied by ELO Coordinator Sean Peschel and Sustainability Coordinators Maggie Morrison and Jacqueline Bruhn.

Youth Climate Leaders Academy, run by the Vermont Energy Education Program (VEEP), aims to help students plan and implement changes that combat climate change. This retreat helped nearly 100 students to create concrete plans to implement in their own communities throughout the year. Oyster River High School played an important role in the conference, as it was the first ever high school from New Hampshire to attend the event.

Students attended workshops based on their specific interests, which included the opportunity to meet environmental leaders such as Anne Watson, the Mayor of Montpelier, Vermont; and Haley Pero, an Outreach Representative for Senator Bernie Sanders.

Although Sanders was not able to attend this year’s conference, he sent a message to the students which was read by his Outreach Representative. Pero, who travels the state talking to Vermont residents about energy and environmental issues, taught students about how to engage with their local representative’s office. “[Students] are the next generation to address this issue. In D.C., some people are still fighting about whether climate change is real, so it’s great to have engaged students that are paying attention to this issue and looking for solutions,” said Pero. Oyster River student Elise Wollheim (‘22) saw value in the political resource workshop, saying, “I really enjoyed learning about connecting with political officials because I didn’t know how easy it was to contact them and get information.”

Not only were students able to attend workshops on specific aspects of environmental activism, such as social movements, graphic design, and marketing, but they also had time to connect with other passionate high schoolers to discuss what changes worked for their schools.  “It was great because there was a community of people who were all motivated by a similar goal: to have a more sustainable planet. It’s great to know that other kids our age are interested in this, which motivates me even more,” said Allison Howland (‘22).

Evy Ashburner (‘22) agreed, saying, “it was a really comfortable environment, and it was easy to learn with people our age.”

Mariah Keagy, an educator at VEEP, explained more about how the program was developed. “This program is designed to help students be successful with climate projects. It comes out of quite a few years of working with high schools and trying to figure out what makes these projects successful and how to help students have success in their efforts.” She explained that since this is only the second year that the program has run, it’s still evolving to meet student needs. “[Climate change] is a large and scary problem that we just have to tackle. These high school students have inherited this problem, and we want them to feel empowered and actually get things done. There’s a power in knowing that you can make the change that needs to happen,” she added.

Cara Robechek, the Executive Director of VEEP, explained that the work that students do goes beyond just the retreat. “We want to continue supporting these projects throughout the year so that it’s not just a two-day thing. There are a lot of conferences where you can go and get inspired and learn new things, but if you don’t have support to actually continue the project then you don’t really have to,” she said. “I loved what [Mayor Anne Watson] said when speaking to the students: we want to create a new normal. And we want to find our peers in that. I like the fact that we’re connecting people from across schools so that they are learning from each other.”

Sustainability Coordinator Maggie Morrison noticed these positive interactions between students, saying, “it was fascinating to see the commonalities between high schools and the issues that they all face, whether they’re in Vermont or New Hampshire. The peer-to-peer support was very valuable.”

ELO Coordinator Sean Peschel agreed, saying, “it was great seeing a group of high school aged students all with the same passion, motivation, engagement, and desire to make a change.”

As the group of students begin their year-long journey to make the high school more sustainable, Peschel is excited to see the difference they can make. “It’s student voice that’s leading the charge, along with adult support. Ultimately, it’s going to be this group of leaders moving it forward and implementing the project. Will there be some bumps and barriers along the way? Yes. But will there also be great successes? Yes, and we need to celebrate those.”

YCLA #1

The Hulbert Outdoor Center, where the event took place.

YCLA #2

Inside the Hulbert Outdoor Center, where students worked and ate meals.

YCLA #3

Cabins that students attending the program stayed in overnight.

YCLA #4

VEEP educator Mariah Keagy speaking to students.

YCLA #5

Allison Howland (‘22), Evy Ashburner (‘22), and Alexandra Dundorf (‘20), respectively, creating sustainability goals for Oyster River.

YCLA #6

Students discussing what they learned from a marketing-focused workshop.

YCLA #7

Jackson Deely (‘20), Alana Ervin (‘19), and Alexandra Dundorf (‘20) connecting with Vermont students Maple and Lila. Photo by Violet Tabacco.

YCLA #8

Allison Howland (‘22), Evy Ashburner (‘22), and Elise Wollheim (‘22) in their cabin.

YCLA #9

Students carrying their luggage from their cabin, preparing to leave the site.