By Lilly Tougas (OGX Youth Field Journalist)
"You're never too young to make a difference" is an idea that pops up frequently these days. Kids seem to be much more empowered than ever to do just that. My brother and I are a pair of those kids. I am only 15-years-old and have been doing ocean conservation work since age four and my brother Trent, who is eleven, can't even remember a time in his life that didn't revolve around helping the planet.
While attending Montessori school at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, we would start each day pledging allegiance to the earth: "I pledge allegiance to the earth, to care for every living thing, to care for earth, sea, and air, and peace and freedom everywhere”. As simple as these words are, they contain a message of empowerment and laid the groundwork for my passion. In 2008, I was one of four children to represent the United States in the Beijing “Green” Olympics. I joined marine-life artist Wyland for the pre-Olympic event Hands Across the Oceans. Along with kids from around the globe, I helped paint his 100th (and final) Whaling Wall. While in Beijing, children from all continents joined hands and promised to care for the world's water together. Like the athletes, I too received a medal naming me a Youth Ambassador for the Planet and I took this very seriously. My brother also has a Youth Ambassador medal, which he received alongside conservation-minded movie producer Jon Landau during a 10-day event to restore Wyland’s three Whaling Walls in the Florida Keys.
The work we do as youth conservationists is broad, and includes volunteer work, educational events, speaking engagements, making short documentaries, and my personal favorite, citizen science work. Even though we are very young and cannot vote, we understand the importance the government has on protecting our planet. We have been to Washington D.C. and our state capitol several times to represent youth voices who advocate for our water. I feel that youth can do many things to make a difference and want them to know you are never too young to start.
Starting campaigns is an easy way to spread a message, such as the ones I started at age six. These campaigns included a lemonade stand at the local grocery store to raise money to purchase reusable bags and hand them out to shoppers. I know every kid loves cupcakes, so another campaign we created was Cupcakes for the Planet which made it into one of Sylvia Earle's amazing speeches!
As we grow and mature, so do our ideas. We now work with Wild Over Wildlife (WOW) on most of our projects where we serve as board members and Ocean Branch advisers. We are doing projects such as the "No Mangrove=No Man" restoration project, which started with a grant from the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. It has grown into planting 2,000 mangroves in the 2016 season working with Florida International University scientist, Nick Ogle. We have other efforts that we are involved in that keep us busy and allow us to empower others to get involved. Kids at a young age can wholeheartedly work for the environment as they don't yet understand how differences in opinion can cause friction. They usually have a passion for the environment and its creatures because they don't like to see things hurt or suffering. Adults do seem to create walls at times, live busy lives, and think they cannot change things.
I have always personified the planet and it truly makes me sad to see Mother Earth in distress. To use the words of another song from my Montessori school days, “The Earth is our Mother, we will take care of her...the Earth is our Mother, she will take care of us.” Luckily, in conservation work, we have the opportunity to work with children and adults who will not stop trying to spread the word. Please know, you are never too young to make a difference and it's never too late to start.