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National Environmental Summit: Learning to Use Talents to Make a Difference

07/12/12 by Juanita Teschner 

SALISBURY, NC – High school students from across the country converged on the Catawba College campus Monday to explore how they can use their interests and talents to make a difference in the world.

They are part of the second National Environmental Summit for High School students, a partnership of the Center for the Environment at Catawba and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) of Colorado. With the guidance of Catawba professors, Center staff and RMI scientists and engineers, these students are discovering how their interest in diverse areas – everything from writing to chemistry, from history to biology, from philosophy to theater – can be used to advance environmental causes.

“So many people don’t realize they can make a difference or they don’t discover it until later in life,” says John Wear, executive director of the Center for the Environment.  “But they can. They can change the path of others. That’s the message we offer these students.” 

Wear has noticed over his years in the classroom that many college students don’t become involved in causes until their senior year. “They could have been engaged the whole time if they had come to that realization earlier,” he says. “We want to communicate to these high school students that they can make a bigger difference than they think. Each time they work for change – perhaps promoting recycling at their school – they will develop the skills and tools they need for bigger commitments in the future.”

Doc Hendley, president of the non-profit organization Wine to Water, spoke to the students Monday night about his path from tending bar to founding an organization that has brought clean drinking water to 100,000 people in Third World countries.

Doc Hendley talks with Redesigning Our Future participant Emma Labovitz of Salisbury, NC.

The son of a preacher, he admits that he “went the wrong direction for a really long time.” But he always remembered his dad’s commitment to serving others.  After waking in the middle of the night with the phrase “wine to water” coursing through his brain, he researched global water issues and learned that untreated water kills more children worldwide than anything else. 

That research propelled him to raise money through wine tastings and to organize efforts to dig wells and provide water filters to people in poor, undeveloped countries. Now, eight years later, at the age of 33, he has just taken his mission into Guatemala, the 13th country to receive his organization’s help.

Hendley knows firsthand that it takes more than a passionate commitment to effect change. “I think it is great for students to shoot for the stars and to have high aspirations of wanting to change or make a difference in this world for good,” he says. 

“However, one thing I am sure of is that reaching those lofty goals doesn’t happen overnight. The hardest part sometimes about starting something that makes a tangible difference in the world is that it happens one step at a time. We can’t get discouraged if things don’t happen as quickly or exactly as we hoped. The important thing is to not give up and to continue taking steps and moving forward. 

“I believe that it’s imperative for people to experience what it’s like to make a difference in the lives of others,” Hendley told the Center earlier. “Without that, our worlds become too small and self-centric. My world was very, very small before I got into this type of work. My life was about me and what I could do to have a good job and be secure and what was going to be fun or exciting for me.”

But that changed when he witnessed mothers in Sudan who walked for hours to get water for their families just to keep their children alive for one more day. “It took living in some of the worst places in the world for me to realize that this world is not just about me,” he said.

Summit participants, including Keela Sweeney of Wilmington, NC (pictured), had the opportunity to meet and talk with Doc after his presentation.

Fortunately, the students at the National Environmental Summit have the opportunity this week to learn how they can use their talents to effect change for the good. “The great thing, though, is that you don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to make a difference,” Hendley says.  “We can to it right here in our own communities.”

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