Lakes students go green: ‘It’s just the right thing to do’

School recognized statewide for environmental efforts

Devon Oleneack unloads a tub of recycled paper, helped by Kate Wilcox (left), as Mackenzie Mitton awaits her turn

At Lakes Elementary School, fifth-graders of the Earth Team tote tubs of recycled paper through the halls every Friday afternoon and dump them into the recycle bin out back. They do it to help save the planet, and they want to do more.

Why do they do it? Just ask them.

Cody Bennett: “To protect the trees and the environment. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Logan Hammingh: “There’s a lot of carbon dioxide going on (causing global warming) and the trees produce more oxygen. It’s not good for most life on Earth.”

Sydney DeKuiper does her part as a member of the fifth-grade Earth Team

Maelyn Lawrence: “To help save the animals. Lots of animals don’t have a home, and if you cut down the trees they don’t have anywhere to go.”

Their answers — and actions — are a big reason Lakes was recently named an Emerald School by Michigan Green Schools, a nonprofit supporting Earth-friendly activism among state public and private schools. Emerald is the second-highest status awarded by the group, based on a school’s efforts around recycling, energy, environmental protection and other activities.

The designation followed an extensive application process spearheaded by parent Dawn Bennett and a Lakes PTO committee. They got considerable help from fifth-grade teacher Tammy Avink, who formed the Earth Team and has long pushed environmental efforts in the school.

Bennett, who is Cody’s mother, said he fueled her interest in the issue by lamenting the amount of waste thrown out in the lunchroom.

“In my son’s lifetime, how many juice boxes have been thrown away?” she wondered. “There’s so much opportunity out there for change. The kids are so into it if you let them be.”

Long-term Efforts Rewarded  

The Emerald recognition builds on years of Lakes’ ecological efforts, led by Avink, a 29-year teacher. She obtained a grant to develop a schoolyard quiet area dedicated in 2000-01, featuring benches and a pathway. She’s led the way on recycling, reusable water bottles and classroom-adopted animals.

Add to that new initiatives boosted by Bennett and the PTO. These include a student-generated bulletin board filled with eco-encouragements, installing recycling bins at the school carnival, water refill stations and a plan to “up-cycle” (repurpose) used Crayola markers. For Earth Day, Venman’s Landscaping Services donated 100 white pines for students to plant at home and around the school.

Teacher Tammy Avink in the Lakes Elementary makerspace, which recycles items such as egg cartons and electric wire to make artworks and other objects

“That’s what I try to instill in my kids: Little things lead to bigger things,” Avink said.

She’s thinking bigger still, including pushing for greener cafeteria practices throughout Rockford schools. “If we want to do this right, it needs to be district-wide,” she said.

Things are headed that way. Parkside achieved Emerald status in 2017. Larry Waters and Doug Hoogerland, principals of Parkside and Roguewood, respectively, have been meeting with administrators on coordinating green initiatives throughout the district. They’ll soon meet with parents to get their ideas, Hoogerland said.

Lakes students have plenty of ideas, too, from a school compost bin and reusable lunch trays to doing away with plastic-wrapped plastic silverware. They see how the little things they do can lead to bigger things.

“It’s good for little kids at a young age to recycle,” said Jimmy Gay. “Then they can keep on telling other people to recycle, and help save the Earth.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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