Changing the world

  • Written by Brenda Sexton
  • Published in NW Stories
Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of Lourdes School Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of Lourdes School

Our Lady of Lourdes students learn that small eco-friendly habits can make a big difference

Dumping garbage cans into plastic wading pools and sifting through the rubbish with tongs, students at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Vancouver discovered something surprising: 50 percent of their school’s garbage could be recycled.

That move to examine their trash three years ago was inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. It was the beginning of a green movement at the school that has continued to grow.

OLL is among more than a dozen Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle where students are learning that small eco-friendly habits can change the world in a big way.

“They’ve got an amazing group of inspired parents and students,” said Michelle Picinich, environmental outreach specialist for Clark County Green Schools, who works closely with Our Lady of Lourdes.

In the first year, the Our Lady of Lourdes Green Team — a collaboration of parents, students and staff — boosted the school’s recycling program and cut waste, earning certifications in waste/recycling and water and saving the school nearly $5,000 a year on its garbage bill. Now they are working on energy, healthy school buildings and school grounds and gardens, with the aim of getting two more certifications by June to reach the “gold” level.

“I feel like Green Team lets me help the Earth and care for the planet that God made,” OLL second-grader Emma Curtis wrote when Northwest Catholic asked students to reflect on their environmental efforts.

“I learn about little ways I can make a difference and share that with my family and friends, and then they can share it, and then they share it until it’s the whole world sharing and caring for the Earth,” Emma wrote. “Isn’t that funny?”

The students take pride in being a green school, said April Dhanens, the Green Team’s parent leader. “So much of that pride comes from knowing that they are fulfilling their mission as Catholics by answering Pope Francis’ call to environmental stewardship.”

Going ‘litterless’ at lunch

It all started in the 2016–17 school year when parents Dhanens, Lisa Da Silva and Ali Sacash-Johnson harnessed their love and passion for the environment into a partnership with Washington Green Schools and Clark County Green Schools to start the Our Lady of Lourdes Green Team.

Washington Green Schools guides and supports public and private schools to be leaders for the environment, offering certification in six categories: Waste and Recycling, School Grounds and Gardens, Energy, Water, Transportation, and Healthy School Buildings.

The organization trains educators on its programs, curricula and various local climate science topics, as well as visiting schools to work individually with green teams. Certified schools receive a flag, certificate and often an award ceremony with a WSG representative present.

The OLL Green Team is open to all students in grades K–8; currently 20 students are team members. For its initial goal, the team set out to earn the waste and recycling certification. They wanted to improve recycling habits that would in turn reduce the school’s garbage output and carbon footprint, and save the school money.

They decided on a “litterless lunch” campaign with fliers, assemblies and presentations to educate classmates on what could, and should, be recycled. They also developed a sorting system with signs to serve as a roadmap.

The student effort paid off in the first year — OLL was the first private, independent school in southwest Washington to be certified as a green school, Sacash-Johnson said. As a bonus, OLL was able to reduce the frequency of the school’s garbage pickup, and the nearly $5,000 in savings went back into the school’s operating budget.

That success wouldn’t be possible without Green Team members who donate their time during and after school to “teach their peers, learn about sustainability, and bring our projects to fruition,” Dhanens said. “Their passion has spread like wildfire through our parish and school communities. I would love to see the same happen in other parishes throughout our diocese.”

For students, the rewards of Green Team include building bonds with their classmates and the world.

“Being on the Green Team nourishes my Catholic faith because I am following Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ by being kind to the earth,” wrote fifth-grader Piper Johnson.

Our Lady of Lourdes SchoolStudents learn about worms and vermicomposting. Photo: Courtesy Our Lady of Lourdes School

Working toward the future

Another success came through a separate program, sponsored by a composite decking company. Students collected nearly 900 pounds of plastic film and wrap — basically grocery bags — and won a bench for the playground the first year and a bird feeder last year.

With waste, recycling and water programs rolling along, the Green Team is making progress on its next certifications. They’ve swapped out CFL bulbs for LED bulbs in the school and church. In March, students made steps toward a healthier school by using vinegar and baking soda to create chemical-free cleaning agents for classroom use. They’re also compiling a plant list and clearing space for planting as they work toward the school grounds and gardens certification. Eventually, they want to achieve all six certifications and become a “platinum” school.

Staying true to its inspiration from Pope Francis, the Green Team begins each quarterly workshop with a prayer for guidance to St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecologists, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, patron saint of the environment and ecology.

The team’s efforts include after-school education projects, including a variety of speakers, such as a master composter/recycler who talked about vermicomposting and left a pound of worms that were adopted by the first-grade class. During Catholic Schools Week in January, the team hosted an assembly to teach students and interested parents how to compost.

OLL preschoolers in Sarah Weddle’s classroom have participated in composting for years. They drop their banana peels and half-eaten carrots into a classroom bin. Weddle adds the contents to her compost bin at home, later bringing back some finished compost for students to help spread on the parish garden that provides produce for the local food bank.

“I always tell them that my worms thank them when the compost,” Weddle said. “I have even had some parents tell me that their kids bug them about where to put their peels if they don’t have a personal compost bin. They love composting.”

Lessons to share

In Western Washington’s Catholic schools, “we teach to the importance of stewardship and care of God’s creation,” said Kristin Dixon, superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools, in an email. “We also have a myriad of service projects that stretch us to think about a life of missionary discipleship.”

Discussions are ongoing about coordinating a “green school” program through her office, Dixon said, but currently each school principal decides the level of participation.

In Olympia, St. Michael School has earned the most certifications among Catholic schools; their principal, Connor Geraghty, was instrumental in helping Our Lady of Lourdes launch their initiative, Dhanens said. St. Michael’s found early success by monitoring waste bins, creating aids to help students sort trash and using skits to educate students.

St. Luke School in Shoreline, which works with King County Green Schools, has earned numerous awards and recognition for its programs. The school has a learning garden that is incorporated into classroom study across the curriculum. Each grade helps care for its own garden bed and students volunteer to harvest and sell the produce to the St. Luke parish community. This year, the school added a hydroponics tower, where fifth-graders are growing lettuce, onions and mustard greens.

Every school is different, but it always helps to start early in the school year so there is plenty of time to work through a project, said Becky Bronstein, outreach coordinator at Washington Green Schools. Schools are better able to overcome obstacles when their green teams include a variety of stakeholders — students, teachers, administrators, custodial staff and parents, she said.

That was the key for the Our Lady of Lourdes Green Team, Dhanens said. Members are grateful for Principal Holly Rogers, who encourages school assemblies about community and global stewardship and designated a week of morning prayer to focus on Laudato Si’. Their pastor, Father Woody McCallister, approved the outdoor classroom and native plant garden next to the parish office and gave his blessing for the Green Team to educate parishioners about plastic film recycling, which helped the team meet its target for plastics collection.

“The entire student body was fired up to help us achieve our goals,” Dhanens said. “Our facilities director, Randy Askman, would take our student team members around to recycle with him. He was so very open to changing up his processes to become more efficient. He’s a huge hero in our eyes.”

For OLL seventh-graders, the focus on the environment fits in with the Catholic Schools Office’s missionary discipleship program, a yearlong exploration of what it means to be a Catholic in and for the world, said Joan Heimbigner, OLL’s service coordinator.

Participating in Green Team has allowed seventh-grader Erin Chan to learn ways to conserve water and energy, and to become more aware of environmental issues.

“Being a part of Green Team is a way for me to take care of God’s gift to us,” Erin wrote, “and a good way to show others how important it is to thank God for his creation by taking care of it.”

Northwest Catholic - May 2019