For the past year, a dedicated group of preteens with a love for nature and an interest in learning more about the environment have been gathering together — both online and outdoors — to benefit the community and become better stewards of the earth.
The South Fork Natural History Museum’s Young Environmentalists Society was started in early 2020 with three founding members who were among the only children in attendance at SOFO’s annual climate summit in the fall of 2019. Artist and educator Mare Dianora’s son, Finny Dianora-Brondal, was one of the original members, and the museum asked Ms. Dianora to run the club, a job she willingly took on. They had held only one in-person meeting in February before COVID forced them to meet remotely, an unfortunate circumstance that easily could have derailed a club based on outdoor and in-person interaction that was still in its very early stages. But the society persevered, and Ms. Dianora said credit goes not only to other adults who helped foster the growth of the young club, but primarily to the young members themselves, who have shown an uncommon dedication to making the world a better place.
One of the first projects the club undertook was the creation of an organic farm on the grounds of the museum, located on the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike in Bridgehampton. Ms. Dianora and her family were largely responsible for doing the work to get the garden started, since pandemic guidelines at that point restricted any in-person gatherings, but they photographed the progress of the seedlings and kept the rest of the group updated in their regular Zoom meetings. By last July, the society was able to meet in person again, with masks and social distancing, and was treated to a lecture from environmental activist and artist Scott Bluedorn.
“He’s absolutely amazing,” Ms. Dianora said. “He’s young and energetic, and the kids loved him.”
Since getting back to in-person meetings, the club has taken advantage of being outdoors, going on birding excursions, an owl walk led by Frank Quevado, the museum’s executive director, and other adventures.
“They’re motivated to be outside no matter the weather,” Ms. Dianora said. “It’s an amazing group of kids.”
The club is open to kids from anywhere, and while the participants are primarily from the South Fork, there are two members from the North Fork, and even one member who lives out in California and meets with the group remotely.
Ms. Dianora and SOFO’s Education and Outreach Coordinator Melanie Meade have helped coordinate and oversee activities for the group, but Ms. Dianora said one of the nicest things for her has been seeing the initiative the children, mostly ages 10 to 14, have taken in deciding what they want the society to be about.
“The kids are the ones steering the bus,” Ms. Dianora said.
They have a virtual book club with NOAA climate scientist Jillian Worssam, based in Arizona, who recently had them read “The Big Melt,” the fifth book they’ve taken on so far. The group does a project or environmental “contest” related to each book they read. When they read “The One and Only Ivan,” about a gorilla in captivity, Ms. Worssam asked them to research zoo or animal captivity facilities with poor reputations and brainstorm ways it could be turned around or take better care of the animals.
“It really made me and Jillian both so proud to see how well researched their projects were, and how hard they worked on it,” Ms. Dianora said. “The passion was obvious.”
The young club members have been inspired to make a difference by engaging in various fundraisers, as well. They found out about the organization CAMFED, which is dedicated to helping send African girls to school, and they started with an initial goal of raising $700, the cost of sending one girl to school. By the end of their fundraising efforts, which included creating their own cookbooks with their favorite recipes (Ms. Dianora put her skill as a bookbinder to use to help in that particular effort), they had raised enough to send several girls to school for the year.
Ms. Meade has been impressed by what the young club members have done, sticking together when they were forced to meet remotely for months, and also taking on tough topics that can be fraught or emotional even for adults.
“They showed a lot of sincerity and effort in projects, and taking challenging assignments on top of their busy school schedule,” she said. “They had sincere and thoughtful reflection on some emotional topics, like the space and housing conditions of zoos and animal parks.”
Ms. Meade added that Ms. Dianora’s guidance has been a big factor in the club’s success.
“A good teacher sets their students on the path to lifelong learning by allowing them to feel invested in their learning,” she said. “In a group organization like YES, Mare partners with the kids on a journey of discovery both through observations in nature and through self-discovery that leads to their empowerment in learning.”
The members of the club are united in their desire to take care of the earth and seem to understand, even at a young age, the extreme importance of doing so.
“I want to be part of this because the environment is one of the most important things we have and we need to protect it,” Finny said. “It’s important because kids are the next generation, and we have a big burden left on us.”
For more information on the club, visit sofo.org/yes.