Youth retreat helps high schoolers envision their future
By Chloe Bennett
Growing up in Hamlin, a small town near Lake Ontario, Seth Pray looked forward to winter skiing. But the outings became fewer as the snow melted more quickly. Now a high school junior, he said he began researching climate change solutions after noticing the weather impacts.
Such research is what brought Pray and 30 other students to The Wild Center’s Youth Climate Leadership Retreat in early August. Campers stayed at the Rock-E House near North Country School in Lake Placid for four days to workshop climate action plans. By the end, each had an item on their to-do list. Plans ranged from building a schoolwide garden or teaching younger students about climate science to conducting energy audits or creating school environmental clubs.
The students, ages 14 to 17, came from New York state except two who traveled from southern Kentucky after learning of the climate program through the Cincinnati Zoo.
This year’s retreat was the first since 2019 and hosted more students than in previous years. Hannah Barg, The Wild Center’s youth climate coordinator, said the organization rented some of the nearby Van Hoevenberg cabins to accommodate more campers.
“We want this opportunity to be available to anyone who’s interested because everybody has a place in the climate movement,” Barg said. More than 60 people applied to the retreat, which cost $75 for the week.
A leading climate advocate who created a way for youth to get involved is saying this is the way you do it. Environmental journalist and author Bill McKibben said young people like the campers at the retreat have already proven their place within the climate movement.
“Young people have been leading the climate fight for many years now—from Greta Thunberg to the Sunrise Movement that brought us the Green New Deal,” he said in an email to the Explorer. “Each effort to educate youth on this topic is crucial, because they immediately see how their lives—their whole lifetimes—will be dominated by this crisis, and they want to go to work.”
Finding their voice
Storytelling and solutions were the heart of the camp. Throughout the week, students wrote their own climate stories, telling of their motivations. High school seniors Elizabeth and Rosemary Newman, sisters from the North Bronx, talked of heavy pollution and disparities caused by natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. Aryaana Khan, a poet and workshop leader for the retreat, witnessed firsthand extreme weather catastrophes while growing up in Bangladesh before she moved to Queens.
Khan, 21, led a climate poetry work through during the second day of the camp for students to write about their emotions and hopes for the planet. One student, Gavyn Burgdoff, wrote a poem about the international impacts of climate change.
“We have to act fast, the island nations are caving in around us. They are not at fault. Big corporate profits are the ones that the top seeks. We need justice now,” his poem read.
Students focused on communication and advocacy in several workshops, including one led by Barg and Yin Liu, climate communications fellow at The Wild Center. Liu and Barg encouraged students to use upbeat stories to persuade others. “Don’t ambush people,” Barg said.
Learning how to talk about climate science and environmental news was part of the reason St. Regis Falls residents Kendra Richardson, 16, and Sarah Susice, 15, applied to the retreat. Aside from a unit in chemistry at St. Regis Falls Central School, neither student learned comprehensive climate science in the classroom.
“I sort of didn’t really know much because our school, it’s so small, we can’t do any clubs,” Susice said. “We have nothing.”
More to explore
That could change soon, Susice and Richardson said. The junior and senior are contemplating starting a climate club on campus after learning how to organize one at the retreat.
“I get that we can’t have a class for it because we have two science teachers and they’re busy,” Richardson said. “But we could have a club. I feel like that would be easier.”
For Northwood School student Bella Wissler, the camp was an extension of her ongoing activism. Wissler said she and classmate Bryan Brady run their Lake Placid school’s environmental club. Wissler said she applied for the retreat to immerse herself in the climate movement.
“In school, when you’re at a club meeting, you’re also thinking about trying to get your lunch in, what time you practice, trying to get your schoolwork done, and so it’s kind of nice to be here,” she said.
Working toward solutions
The group met with students from the Native Earth Program, a week-long educational program hosted by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at The Wild Center’s new climate solutions exhibit, where they explored the museum and exchanged ideas.
“We’ve been doing traditional skills with each other and building that skillset,” Neil Patterson, assistant director for the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at ESF, said. “And thinking about the science and knowledge of our ancestors that went into those skills.”
Nadia Harvieux, associate director for educational programs at the Finger Lakes Institute, led and organized several workshops, including water sampling with Tom Collins from the Adirondack Watershed Institute. Students measured chloride, pH, dissolved oxygen and turbidity levels in Round Lake.
Jen Kretser, director of climate initiatives for The Wild Center, said giving the high schoolers the framework to actualize their climate goals was the driving force behind the program.
“We hear that young people, they want to have the agency and the autonomy to drive their own ideas forward, but they still need adults to help support them and to be advocates for them and to be allies and to work in partnership with them, not to tell them what to do,” Kretser said.
Students left the retreat armed with tools to act.
Many of them are already at work in the climate movement, and others have detailed plans laid out. Saranac Lake High School freshman Olivia Rose said she envisions creating a composting system within her school district. Eventually, she said, the compost could be used in a community garden that would provide fresh food for students. Her first step is fundraising for the project.
“I want to get to all of the schools composting by my third year, and then in senior year, I want to really drill in the garden,” Rose said.