The audience sat in the rain or stood under trees, watching a rain-soaked John Denver present the 1996 Windstar Youth Award to Tara Church, 18, for ten years of outstanding contribution to the local and global environment. Neither Tara nor Denver minded the rain. Even as it dampened the ceremony, and forced Tara to cut her speech short, the life-giving rain would sustain the urban forest of 700 trees planted by Tara and Tree Musketeers, the youth-run organization she and her Brownie Troop founded in 1987. Also receiving the nurturing rains would be thousands of other trees the young activists had planted or helped plant with other groups, as well as thousands more that had been adopted as seedlings at Tree Musketeer booths around the country.
Tree-planting was the earliest of the many contributions for which Tara won the Windstar Youth Award. Presented by The Windstar Foundation, which Denver founded with Tom Crum, the award honors a young person whose actions contribute to an environmentally sustainable, peaceful, and equitable future for the Earth's peoples and living resources. The winner's actions exemplify personal commitment to these values in his or her own life, and promote ways for others to participate in creating a sustainable future. Accompanying the award is a $5,000 scholarship from The Eclipse Group in Chicago.
Tara was selected by a Youth Award jury composed of former youth award recipients as well as educational and ecological leaders. She had been nominated by Tammy Smith, another Tree Musketeer who herself would have been a deserving candidate, and who now stood behind her on the platform. Standing with Tammy were the superintendent of El Segundo Schools, the mayor pro tem of El Segundo, and the President of El Segundo Chamber of Commerce, all of whom paid tribute in their remarks to Tara and Tree Musketeers. In the audience were Tara's former teachers, as well as city officials and business leaders who had collaborated with Tree Musketeers on environmental projects.
Sheltered by an umbrella Denver held for her, Tara delivered her acceptance speech, emphasizing that she is only one of many young people who might deserve the award."Millions of kids in America and around the world are taking action,B2 she pointed out."They are cleaning up rivers, recycling, feeding the homeless, attacking the drug problem, planting trees, and everything else you can imagine.... I share this honor with all of them."
In particular, Tara credited the cofounders and all the members of Tree Musketeers."Most of all, this award belongs to those thirteen eight-year-olds and our brownie troop leaders who all dug in and planted a tree on May 9, 1987.B2 She also credited youth and adults who supported or joined forces with them."When Tree Musketeers was founded, a long time ago, my friends and I were only eight years old. That's really young, but even then people believed in us."
In an earlier speech, Tammy had summarized the history of Tree Musketeers. The spirit of Tree Musketeers began to take shape in a meeting of Brownie Troop 91 in 1987, as the troop discussed humanity's rapid exchange of earth's resources for pollution, waste, and crowding.
The Brownies reacted with alarm. One of the former Brownies, Sabrina Alimahomed, expressed her own reactions in a paper she presented at age 14 to a 1994 national conference on Preventing Child Exposure to Environmental Hazards, and published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the National Institute of Health,"When, at age eight, I first heard about the environmental problems that surround us, what first came to my mind was a visual image of the future. I pictured a world where we were living underground, because the world we used to call home became unlivable .... Seeing my future threatened was enough to scare me into action."
Similarly moved, the other Brownies took action with Tara and Sabrina by planting a sycamore, Marcie the Marvelous Tree, on city property. Tara later recalled,"After the planting, we sat around Marcie. I thought about how big she'd grow, and how much good one tree could do in the future. Realizing what one individual could accomplish by planting one tree gave me a sense of power I didn't have before. I didn't feel my individual efforts could make a difference until that moment."
Sharing her sentiments, the troop of Brownies dedicated themselves to the rescue of the earth, vowed to enlist others in the effort, and recruited boys and girls of all ages. Brownie Alisa Wise named the young activists Tree Musketeers. By 1993, Tree Musketeers had planted 700 trees in El Segundo, found homes for thousands of seedlings, established the city's first complete recycling center, and published a regular environmental column in the newspaper.
In 1990, Tree Musketeers became a nonprofit group staffed and run by kids. In accordance with corporate law, adults served on the Board of Directors. However, the Council of Youth Directors, who ranged in age from 10 to 18, set policy and planned and coordinated projects.
Tree Musketeers soon collected a room full of national and local awards, including a National President's Environmental Youth Award, National Arbor Day Award, Keep America Beautiful National Youth Award, Renew America Environmental Achievement Award, and a National Volunteers Service award from the Department of the Interior. In 1994, Tree Musketeers won the President's Volunteer Action Award from the Points of Light Foundation. Tara, Sabrina, and Tammy, then 15, flew to Washington, where Tara accepted the Award for Tree Musketeers from President Clinton, Sabrina conducted a seminar as the only youth presenter at the conference, and Tammy addressed a star-studded audience on behalf of Earth Force at an Earth Day Eve reception.
One of the early award-winning projects was a 1989 television program they produced and aired. Sabrina recalled,"We produced a series of environmental quiz shows for Community Cable TV. We were in 5th grade then, and took charge of writing, directing, and performing 8Ccommercials' which were environmental comedy skits. Seventh, eighth and ninth grade Girl Scouts were the production crew manning cameras, floor directing, hosting, etc. No adults were allowed in the studio during tapings. We kept them all locked up in the control booth!" Tree Musketeers wrote environmental curriculum for participating classrooms to study in advance of the quiz game.
Most honors were awarded to the group. However, only individuals are eligible for some awards. Individual Tree Musketeers began to receive awards. Sabrina Alimahomed won the Master Planter Award from American Forests and Master Card. Kaneta Brown collected the Firestone Fire Hope awarded for environmental action. Brook Church won the First Lady of California Award, and Tara won a Golden Rule Award for volunteer action, from JC Penny, as did Tammy Smith.
"The individual awards are tough in a way. In every case where an individual has won an award, several or all of the other Tree Musketeers may have been equally deserving, yet only one can win the award," said Gail Church. Church and Kathy Barrett were co-leaders of Brownie Troop 91 when Tree Musketeers was founded. Church later became executive director of Tree Musketeers, and Barrett sat on the adult board.
"For example," continued Church,"Tara was nominated for the Windstar Award by Tammy, who herself would have made a perfect candidate. Her contributions are quite as impressive."
Tara and Tammy had teamed up in 1992 to chair the steering committee of the first by-kids-for-kids Partners for the Planet National Youth Environmental Summit. The summit manifested an earlier dream. In 1991, Tree Musketeers was the only youth group to help plan and host the Fifth National Urban Forestry Conference. They began to dream about a similar summit for kids. Tara, then 12, recalls,"At the conference, I thought about how much good it did to bring environmentalists from all over the country together to discuss these issues. I thought about our youth environmental movement and that it would be nice to have a summit of our own, just for youth."
Fortunately, the young activists met USDA Forest Service representative Robert Conrad, who presented their idea to the Forest Service. The Forest Service provided the initial grant for Tree Musketeers to organize the summit. On the steering committee were young representatives from eleven youth groups around the country, including Kids For A Clean Environment, founded by Windstar Foundation Youth Award winner Melissa Poe.
The next year, Tammy organized and chaired a Southern California Regional Youth Environmental Summit. Then in 1995, Tara and Sabrina co-chaired the second Partners for the Planet National Youth Environmental Summit.
In addition to their environmental projects, Tree Musketeer members managed to lead well-rounded lives, Many, like Tara and Tammy, were honors students. In addition to publishing environmental columns in local newspapers, Tara and Tammy wrote and edited for the high school paper as well, and Tara served as a cheerleader.
Since September, Tara and Tammy have been separated by a continent, with Tammy at New York University and Tara at the University of Southern California. Yet on November 22, 1996, Tammy stood in the rain to watch the young woman she nominated receive her award, and listened while Windstar Program Director Jeanie Tomlinson explained the work of the Foundation.
The mission of the Windstar Foundation is"To inspire individuals to make responsible choices and take direct personal actions to achieve a peaceful and environmentally sustainable future." Based near Snow-mass in the Rocky Mountains, the foundation offers a variety of programs and projects.
In a recent message, issued with board member Cheryl Charles, Denver explained how Tara's contributions aligned with the mission."We worry about generations of youth who believe that things on Earth will get worse, not better. We also feel the inspiration of our Windstar Youth Award recipient, Tara Church, and those of her generation who do believe they can make a difference, and are taking actions to demonstrate their beliefs."
In presenting the award, Denver declared,"You know, you don't have to do everything, but if you do what you can do, and the second person does what they can do, and if I do what I can do, together we will come up with what is necessary to solve the problems that confront us."
Hearing his words many in the audience could understand the obvious rapport and mutual admiration between Tara and Denver. They recalled Tara, at age 14, saying, "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can not change the world. If we all dedicate ourselves to changing our own little parts of the world, then we will change it. The power is in our hands."
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