String, duct tape, newspapers, cereal boxes, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, egg cartons and paper bags aren’t usually anybody’s idea of high fashion.
But the idea here was more one of “trashion” and intended to focus on reuse of these recyclable items, or at least awareness of them.
Such was a recent day at the Rec Connect after-school program at Matthew Whaley Elementary School in Williamsburg. William & Mary Student Environmental Action Coalition’s Eco-Schools Leadership Initiative participants made their twice-monthly visit, this time providing laptop presentations on responsible disposal of trash and helping students create items for them to wear in the “trashion” show.
Talia Schmitt ’18 co-founded ESLI with another student as a senior in high school in Fairfax, Virginia. It started out with visits to a local elementary school to deliver environmental presentations to school groups.
Her second year at W&M, Schmitt started a chapter here. She posts all ESLI lessons and videos on the organization’s website and advises what has now grown to 12 ESLI chapters in Virginia, which include those at W&M, Virginia Commonwealth University and 10 high schools in Northern Virginia.
The W&M group has about a dozen student participants from various majors, meeting every Thursday to alternate between lesson planning and going to Whaley to give a lesson to students in its Rec Connect after-school program.
The sessions cover a different subject each month, with emphasis on detailing lots of different environmental topics, according to Schmitt. Recent subjects have been food, waste reduction and upcycling. Planned areas for the spring are water, transportation and alternative energy.
The visits have components of both communicating with the Whaley students and interactive activities. Those have included going outside to look at trees and make notes in a journal each students makes at the start of school, a recycling relay race, greenhouse gas tag and doing an experiment to try to roast s’mores on solar panel pizza boxes.
“We’ve been going for three years now, and we really enjoy getting to know the students on an individual basis,” Schmitt said. “We know most of their names now, and they know us, too. We’ve gotten to really enjoy that time off of campus.”
Tyler Senio ’19 has been involved with ESLI since his freshman year, especially enjoying watching the Whaley students getting older each year and sometimes remembering information from past ESLI lessons. Visiting an elementary school reminds him of when he was going to programs at that age.
“I just love spending time with the kids,” Senio said. “I think it’s tons of fun, and I think it’s really important for them to learn about the environment.”
Richard Wright, recreation supervisor with James City County Parks and Recreation in charge of Whaley Rec Connect said having ESLI students do the programming once a month is valuable.
“It provides an additional educational component to parks and rec through environmental education we would normally have in the summer camp program,” Wright said. “So to sustain it throughout the school year with this type of program is very beneficial to the kids.”
He has talked with other program coordinators about expanding to have ESLI visit other Rec Connect sites so that more students can benefit. The younger age is considered best for getting lessons to stick.
“It’s best to get them now where they’re little sponges, when they start absorbing a lot of the information that they get,” Wright said. “And then it reinforces the same thing for SOL-type curriculum during the school year, as well as in the summertime when we actually do a big environmental ed program for the Rec Connect program.”
ESLI’s early December visit culminated in the “trashion show,” with W&M students showing off the Whaley students’ creations complete with background music and a garbage bag catwalk. Creations included a plastic bag vest, a hat made of paper towel rolls attached together with string, and a newspaper skirt.
Several students walked with their W&M mentors, either wearing an item or in one case providing additional accompaniment with a noisemaker.
Jen Dunn ’20 is in her second year working with ESLI and became the group’s co-coordinator in January. She is planning a career in environmental education and said the group members really love working with the Whaley students and make ESLI a priority in their busy schedules.
“It’s just really nice to be able to see the kids’ faces and their smiles when we come over there,” Dunn said. “It’s a really great break from the stresses of college.”