Ensuring a livable space in the future

Denver students with Youth Sustainability Board join teens across the U.S. for Earth Day tree planting

Christy Steadman
Posted 4/1/21

Those involved with the Youth Sustainability Board believe that “when you’re fighting for the Earth, you’re fighting for all the people on it.” These are the words of Dakota Gelman, a junior …

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Ensuring a livable space in the future

Denver students with Youth Sustainability Board join teens across the U.S. for Earth Day tree planting


Those involved with the Youth Sustainability Board believe that “when you’re fighting for the Earth, you’re fighting for all the people on it.”

These are the words of Dakota Gelman, a junior at the Denver School of the Arts who, along with Felicia Winfrey, serves as the Youth Sustainability Board’s co-president.

“This is our Earth,” added Winfrey, a senior at Denver South High School. “It’s really important that we work to make it a livable space. And it’s important for youth to recognize that we can make changes.”

The Youth Sustainability Board (YSB) is a student-run nonprofit that offers middle-and-high schoolers across Colorado “a platform to pioneer sustainability initiatives in their schools and greater communities,” states its website.

YSB got its start roughly two years ago by Maddy Gawler, who, at the time, was working toward her undergraduate degree at the University of Denver; and two then-high schoolers who are now both in college — Hailey Hayes, a graduate of South High School, and Sam Anderson, an East High School graduate.

Gawler, 24, completed her master’s degree in international development with a certificate in global corporate social responsibility in June, and now volunteers as YSB’s executive director.

“The youth have so much power and voice,” Gawler said. “High schoolers have the passion, and they need the opportunity to engage.”

In the past couple of years since its beginning, YSB has grown from partnering with five schools to now working with environmental/sustainability clubs at 18 schools located as far north as Fort Collins. Each club is part of one of three YSB councils — Denver Public Schools, Boulder/Longmont and Fort Collins. In total, about 500 students are now involved with YSB, and their efforts range from renewable energy to waste management to eco-friendly transportation. This includes leading a variety of volunteer efforts — such as river cleanups and trail restoration projects — and even working on nonpartisan policy development.

For example, students in the Denver Public Schools Council are drafting a resolution to enact sustainable change, such as recycling and composting programs, at schools throughout the district. The youth are hoping to present it to the school board in the near future.

“YSB is proactively working toward change for the future, rather than just realizing what’s wrong in the present or complaining about the past,” Gawler said. “They (the youths) are coming together and creating the positive change they want to see.”

Currently, the YSB youth are joining teens across the United States in organizing an Earth Day tree planting event to take place on April 24. The eight local schools participating are Denver School of the Arts, D’Evelyn Jr-Sr High School, East High School, Peak to Peak Charter School, Poudre High School, South High School, St. Mary’s Academy and Thomas Jefferson High School; and youth with the Colorado Young Leaders organization are participating on behalf of Cherry Creek High School.

The event is the brainchild of Tree-Plenish, which is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization based in the U.S. east coast area. Tree-Plenish got its start in 2018 as a high school project by Lizzy Elsner and Sethu Odayappan, and now with both founders in college, Tree-Plenish has expanded to work with high schoolers across the U.S. College students volunteer to run the organization and mentor the high schoolers.

“It’s been inspiring to see all these youth sharing our mission and vision on sustainability,” Elsner said. “The idea is for high schoolers to be able to walk away feeling empowered and that they can make a global difference.”

Tree-Plenish estimates that about 15,000 trees will be planted for the Earth Day tree planting event. The goal of the event is to offset the individual schools’ average paper usage by planting trees in community members’ yards. When deciding on a goal for the number trees to be planted, the students took into consideration the size of their school — a smaller school uses less paper, on average — and because remote learning took place during much of the 2019-2020 school year, some students used their school’s 2018-2019 paper usage data.

For example, in Denver, East High School has a goal to plant 250 trees, South’s goal is 200 trees and Denver School of the Arts has a goal of 150 trees.

The high schoolers took tree requests from community members through March 24, or, approximately one month prior to the tree planting event. The small fee that community members paid covered the cost of the tree itself, which comes as a bare root sapling to ensure the best possible survival rate.

The local students get the trees from Tree-Plenish, which works with a variety of tree vendors and nurseries. Because high schools across the U.S. are participating in the event, Tree-Plenish works with the high schoolers so that the trees planted in each community are native to the area.

On April 24 in Denver, the local students will set up a community location from where volunteers in small groups will depart to the tree planting destinations. All volunteer tree planters will receive basic tree planting training, as well as a briefing on the protocols the students are implementing to ensure the event takes place in a COVID-safe manner. Community members may also pick up their pre-ordered trees on April 24 if they prefer to plant them themselves.

Many of the events the YSB youths had planned in 2020 had to be canceled because of COVID-19, so they are especially looking forward to being able to bring the community together — metaphorically — in a COVID-safe way.

“All humans can connect to trees in some way,” Gelman said, adding that each tree planted during the one-day tree planting will benefit the community for many years to come. “It’s the tangible things that make change empowering.”

As for YSB, the youth are dreaming big, Winfrey said. She added that maybe in another five or 10 years, it will become a national organization.

“YSB is a great outlet for teens to lead and create sustainable change,” said Kendall Ogin, a senior at East High School who is involved with YSB and serves as president of East’s sustainability club. “Teens are going to be leading the world someday. Not only do we care about this, it’s kind of our duty to make the world a better place.”

Youth Sustainability Board, Earth Day, Tree-Plenish, Denver


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