“When the fire first started, we were all in school taking our regular classes,” Krish Shah says. “When you looked out the window, it was black like the night sky.” Krish is a Grade 9 student at École McTavish Junior High Public School. He and his schoolmates were evacuated during the Fort McMurray fires last spring.
Krish grew up playing in the forest behind his house and was no less than devastated when he returned to find his backyard charred and barren post wildfire. Where tall trees once sprouted from a bed of lush green grass, only raw scorched earth remained. Driving back into his hometown from Edmonton, Krish knew he “had to do something about this.”
For this, he would need the help of like-minded people and access to resources. He found both through membership to the school’s environmental club. An extension of the school’s WE club—known to École McTavish students and teachers as the social justice club—here, Krish was able to brainstorm with other young people as eager as he was to make an action plan. Together, the group decided planting trees—where so many had been lost—would help heal their community.
“These guys came up with the idea,” proudly declares educator Robynn Moody. She is beaming with pride after watching Krish receive the Governor General’s Award from Craig Kielburger.
One of two teachers who run the WE Schools program at École McTavish, the educator oversees the club as its advisor. As she shares, the students’ dedication stretched as far as seeking help outside the school from the Green Teen Program, in order to gain the training and insight on how to launch their project properly.
With the help of leaders in the program, Krish and his peers formed EcoYOLO, an action group committed to spreading a single message: you only have one life to live and one Earth to live it on.
“From then on,” Krish unclenches his hands and begins to gesture excitedly, “we started getting a few contacts and those contacts turned into more contacts.” This included a representative from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s city council, who invited the group to present their action plan.
Krish’s memory of the presentation day is a happy one; standing alongside fellow EcoYOLO members, the group knew their plan was going to work. His big, brown eyes light up when he says, “Right then and there the people of the council started taking money out of their pockets to help us and help our project.” That day, the students collected $860.
With a little money in the donation jar, EcoYOLO continued to pick up momentum, next landing coverage in newspapers and across the radio waves. Capitalizing on the buzz in the air, the group set out to find a partner to help finance their project. While applying for grants, Krish and members met with city officials before going to the very top for support: the president of Tree Canada.
Then came a call from Chevrolet.
As a part of ParticipACTION 150 Play List, Chevrolet chose the Fort McMurray community to donate a “Gift of Play,” singling out EcoYOLO’s tree planting project. The group received $10,000 in support of their cause and a new wind in their sails.
With four partners—Chevrolet Canada, Tree Canada, Intact Insurance, and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo—on their side, it appeared the group had the firm roots it needed to move on to tree planting itself. Then it dawned on the them: “We realized that there was a bit of miscommunication—nothing was set in stone,” Krish recalls. “We didn’t have an area of land, we didn’t have trees to plant and we realized that we needed permission from everybody to be able to plant.”
Undiscouraged—in large part owing to one Ms. Moody and her guidance— the students delved even deeper into their project. For both the educator and her students, EcoYOLO became a second full-time job. She handed them the trowels and they dug in.
“We had a big idea, but we were kids,” Krish says of getting the project off the ground. “We didn’t know what we were doing at all, but through leadership with our teachers, we learned this is how you run a meeting, this is how you interview with someone and this is how you ask someone questions, formally. We basically learned how to maturely handle situations and achieve goals.”
In the club advisor’s perspective, launching EcoYOLO has taught her students how to forge their way as young leaders—even if that means pushing their way into spaces where youth have not typically been given a voice. “Sometimes adults just want to talk with adults,” she explains. With a chuckle, she continues, “But these guys wanted to be on the conference calls, so I put them on the conference call.” In the end, her approach is an extension of WE Schools; “I think the main message of WE is that young people can make a difference.”
On June 8, over 200 students gathered at Saphrae Creek to plant 1,500 seedlings with Krish and the EcoYOLO team. With the sun shining overhead, they put shovels to dirt. “Everybody got down to the site and [started] planting and laughing and having so much fun,” Krish remembers, curling one side of his mouth upwards. “[I] knew this was the moment where I made a difference.”