Jun 18, 2021

Teen Scene

By Lori Draz and Olivia Fair

Welcome to Teen Scene. Each month our young authors write, in their own voice, stories that will educate and inform fellow students and parents. If you are a teen who would like to write your story, contact The Journal. We’ll help you polish itup, so don’t worry, let’s just get to sharing.

This month’s author is 17-year-old Olivia Fair, a junior at Henry Hudson Regional High School in Highlands, and a member of Clean Ocean Action’s inaugural Student Environmental Advocates and Leaders (SEAL)program, a new program funded by Impact 100 Jersey Coast. As we spend more time at our beaches and waterways and enjoying other outdoor activities, remember that nature is a living thing, deserving of our respect. When you pay attention, Mother Nature will teach you many lessons, and Olivia Fair has been one of her most passionate students. Here is Olivia’s story.

I knew two things from when I was little: I loved nature, and garbage has to go somewhere.

It wasn’t long after putting those two things together that my family and I began volunteering at the bi-yearly Beach Sweeps conducted by Clean Ocean Action. Each spring and fall, thousands of people up and down the Jersey Shore walk the beaches, collecting litter which is then tallied and disposed of properly.

Through my many years of volunteering at Beach Sweeps, I observed society’s need for convenience. I realized how mindlessly we abuse nature and all the gifts it provides us. Seeing firsthand the influx of microplastics and other plastic debris in tiny pieces, some as small as a grain of sand, began to seriously worry me. At home, we eliminated almost all plastics from our kitchen. We ditched plastic cups, utensils, storage containers and plastic wrap. We use a water filter for drinking, we boycotted plastic water bottles and Ziploc bags, and we each have our own portable glass water bottles and ceramic travel coffee mugs. It truly does make a difference in taste and health benefits, and it eliminates the excessive amount of plastic in the recycling and trash bins.

I also am a nature lover. I enjoy all the animals and wildlife around me and have always been interested in good nutrition and healthy living. Long before there were modern pharmaceuticals, people used herbs and food as medicine, curing things like bad breath by chewing on peppermint and taming upset stomachs with nettle or chamomile tea. It was long a dream of mine to create an accessible community garden where people take whatever they needed to nourish or heal themselves.

My interest in organic gardening spiked a few years ago, when I developed sensitivity to gluten. As a violinist, I found it extremely painful and difficult to play my instrument with cracked, blistering and bleeding hands –one of the many consequences of eating gluten. I had to drastically change my eating habits. Processed foods were off the table, but so many gluten-free foods were tasteless and expensive. Eating lunch in school was torture. It seemed like an apple was my onlychoice. I would even bring my own food to parties.

My best choices were properly prepared fruits and vegetables along with organic meats, fish and poultry. Meals were a lot of work for my family, but as we began using more herbs and spices in our home-cooked dinners, we learned to make tasty, healthy dishes that were a pleasure to eat.

I so enjoy working with COA, and I was excited and a bit apprehensive when I was invited to join the first Student Environmental Advocates and Leaders program. Being a part of the first SEAL class was such a great experience despite the challenges of working on this project during a worldwide lockdown. We met virtually bi-monthly starting in January to collaborate and connect. Initially, the discussions were on current world issues, and each week, we had an action item to complete. That forced us to explore both political and environmental world events and research the work of other advocates. This research allowed us to expand our minds and free our creativity which led to our community projects.

I wanted to create a project that fit the program’s parameters, spoke to my passion and benefited my community. I had volunteered for a local food drive, so I knew that food insecurity and a lack of a local market was an issue faced by many residents in our town. This reminded me of my dream project of starting a community garden. Finding the right location was now my challenge, and of course, there were all the restrictions of the pandemic.

Then a close family friend who is also a member of the Highlands First Aid told me they wanted to add a mural to their building in downtown Highlands. I’m an art student, and I was happy to help them paint a design on the building. That’s when I asked them about using their vacant backlot to create a community garden. One of the members inspired by the project pitched in and built some heavy-duty planters to expand on my original design. Local residents also donated pots. I purchased organic soil, rocks for drainage and organic fertilizer. Next, I went on a tough hunt for organic seeds, which I eventually found in Ocean County and had to rush to get them planted in time to complete the project. This was a perfect opportunity to show my 7-year-old nephew how to plant and fertilize the seedlings. I felt very proud that I was introducing him to the joys of growing food as my mother had once done for me.

The entire SEAL team, our education coordinator, Kristen Grazioso, and the staff at COA made this experience rewarding and educational, even though we didn’t get to go on the hands-on field trips. The other SEAL participants came up with really interesting, diverse and challenging projects that required them to reach out to the community or government leaders. I am quite proud to have been an inaugural member. It is my hope to be an ambassador next year and introduce the program to students in Monmouth County.

Even though I am pursuing a career in psychology with a focus on art and music therapy, healthy living, environmental issues and volunteering in my community will always be things I will embrace throughout my life. I hope my story encourages other young people to get involved in their community and pursue their passions.