Lowcountry Earth Force
125 Cannon St.
Charleston, S.C. 29403
What it is:
An environmental service learning organization that helps Earth Force groups at area schools identify and implement projects to better their community.
What $25 would do:
• Cover the cost of printing a curriculum for a teacher
• Buy half the supplies for a participating classroom
• Buy T-shirts for a fourth of a classroom so they can show off their pride in participating
• Help support the $5,000 it costs to fund one classroom for a year
• LCD Projector (currently borrowing weekly)
• Chart paper and markers
• Used digital cameras
• Donations for T-shirts
Any environmental education program will tell you that children are the future, and that their motivation lies in a "save what you love, love what you understand" instructional philosophy. Lowcountry Earth Force's Anna Richardson (30) and Stacey Littlefield (32) take that a step further. If a traditional program points to the mountain and says, "Here's why it's beautiful — now go climb it," Earth Force supplies the map, compass, and hiking shoes.
Tucked into a cozy Cannon Street corner office, Executive Director Richardson and Program Director Littlefield staff the nerve center of a program that's literally transforming schools across the Charleston area. The pair are the local face of a program founded nationally in 1994 by the Pew Charitable Trust (the chapter here began in 1998) as a way to combine civic action with environmental education. They're responsible for programs at two dozen schools that now host in-class or after-school Earth Force programs at no cost to the schools, many of which possess the financially struggling Title One designation.
"Our ultimate goal is to give students the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to become active environmental citizens," says Richardson. To accomplish that, Littlefield visits schools to carry out "environmental inventories," leading a walk around the community to identify the problems the students find that most concern them. With the help of trained volunteers, the groups research the issues they find, be it runoff into storm drains from parking lots or excessive dog poop on the sidewalk. They brainstorm sustainable solutions, and design and implement a plan to correct the problem.
"It's a whole lot easier to become an environmentalist as a young person than it is once you've developed bad habits and adapted to a lifestyle of convenience," says Littlefield. "It's much easier to take a fresh mind and put a fresh perspective in it than it is to put a fresh idea in a stale mind. To children, it makes perfect sense."
An organization as broad reaching as Lowcountry Earth Force mandates a passionate and tireless staff behind it, attributes that the two-woman team clearly possess. Richardson handles communication with volunteers and teachers, fund-raising and financial management, public relations and events, and overall directorship, duties including weekly conference calls and close partnership with the national Earth Force program.
Littlefield is the legs of the operation. With a masters in marine biology from the College of Charleston and a long history of experiential outdoor teaching, she's regularly out in the field, conducting community surveys with groups, helping coordinate projects and "cutting through red tape," developing curriculum, and training new volunteers. "I love teaching, but I don't ever want an actual classroom," she says. "I've got a better chance of reaching more youths in this capacity."
Earth Force has already been responsible for plenty of positive change around Charleston. A group at Belle Hall Elementary was so instrumental in bringing the pedestrian lane to the Ravenel Bridge that they were invited to be the first to bike across when it opened. Mitchell Elementary chose to focus on animal waste in the street, designing public service announcements that go hand-in-hand with actual cleanup. "It's environmental service learning," explains Richardson. "If the students notice there's trash all over the park, they don't just clean it up and let it get filthy again. They look at the root cause and observe that people are throwing trash on the ground because there's no trash cans. Then they work with the city to get the cans, clean it up, and create a lasting solution."
Littlefield also coordinates a Youth Action Board (YAB) for teenagers, meeting once a month to organize projects like a Habitat for Humanity green building, picking up marine debris, and camping retreats. Alex Twigg, a student at Wando High School, is both a YAB member and an active Earth Force volunteer with her environmental studies class. She says that many young people don't recognize the impact they can have, and she's driven to build an environmental background prior to reaching job-hunting age. Wando's program is applying for grants for aerators to control algae in their on-campus ponds, and solar panels on their roof.
"So many kids get out of high school without having any experience bettering their community," says Wando teacher Michele Powell, in her third year of incorporating Earth Force into her lesson plan. "We're helping these young people become really environmentally-conscious citizens."
Unfortunately, the list of Charleston schools requesting an Earth Force program is more than a two-woman staff can accommodate, regardless of passion and drive. Their after-school programs require a ratio of one volunteer to 10 kids, and they're actively recruiting motivated individuals, regardless of environmental experience, to lend an hour of time a week with a group.
"Our program goes beyond appreciation, to ownership," says Richardson. "These kids are going to be the ones leading the Sierra Club and the Coastal Conservation League. We want the community to appreciate them and give positive reinforcement, so they'll go on to do bigger and better things."