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Holyoke program recognized by state for environmental project

By Stephanie Brault

Staff Intern

Today, more often than not, the environment is something that is taken for granted and abused. There are, however, certain people who do care and who take a few more steps toward bettering our planet.

Twenty-three schools and two non-profit organizations that have put in extra effort to educate students about energy and the environment have been honored with the 14th Annual Secretary's Awards for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education. The office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) solicited nominations for the award from late 2007 until last month. Schools and organizations that willingly combine environmental education with regular public or private school curricula are eligible. Two local schools, West Springfield Middle School and Springfield Central High School, were recipients of this award. The Lean on Me Family Center Inc., in Holyoke, one of the two non-profit organizations, was also recognized for its efforts.

EEA Secretary Ian Bowles presented the awards, which range from $100 to 500, to the recipients at a State House ceremony on May 12. There were also two non-profit organizations that were recognized with Certificates of Honor. The awards, funded through the Massachusetts Environmental Trust and the Commonwealth's Clean Environment Fund, are intended to fund further environmental education initiatives at the schools.

Science teacher Jessica Greene of West Springfield Middle School taught her students about nature and the environment through a program called Schoolyard Ecology, a program that is coordinated by the Harvard Forest, owned by Harvard University. This year was Greene's second year with the program, but it was the first year in which she officially submitted data to the research center at Harvard. She said that last year was a trial run, but this year she had more to work with.

The school received a first honors award of $500 for its efforts.

At Springfield Central High School, botany and ecology teacher Naomi Volain coached her Envirothon Team of students. Envirothon is the largest natural resources competition for high school students in North America. Students are able to go into the field on teams and are challenged to use critical thinking and problem solving skills. Volain and her team focused on energy and renewable energy in their community.

This year, Volain and her team received a second honors award of $400. She plans to use it for transportation purposes during the competition.

In Holyoke, Director of the Lean on Me Family Center Inc. Yvonne Garcia and her Holyoke Environmental Action Team (HEAT) carried out the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Project. The Action Team, Garcia said, is a group of teenagers in the program who work with the state and federal departments to receive training for the salmon project and others in Project Wild. In January, the teens learn how to use different resources and activities and then work with the younger children on these projects.

This year, with the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Project, the team went through multiple steps to study and care for the eggs, such as examining the dams for a sufficient place to let out the newly hatched salmon, or the fry, and monitoring water temperature. "We usually get about 300-400 eggs. We learn what they eat, teach what goes on from when they hatch, and what happens until they go out into the ocean. It's like a fish tank," Garcia explained.

The program started many years ago, and was originally run by Jackson Parkway and the Holyoke Housing Authority. It began as a science and math after-school and summer program. Eventually, Parkway was closing, but many people did not want the program to be brought to an end. Garcia said, "I brought it down to where I lived, but eventually it grew, and grew, and grew! So they changed the name to the Lean on Me Family Center, moved it to the building on Suffolk Street, and that's mainly for the older kids. The younger kids stay at the community room."

Garcia and the HEAT received a Certificate of Excellence for their project. "We're very proud," Garcia said happily, when asked of the program's effect on the children. "It's still volunteers, and they're really into it. Many kids come back as staff. That tells me the program worked, to have them come back even though they're not getting paid."