Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sustainable Sisler

From compost heap to garden to fall feast -- to a major environmental award

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Maybe the harsh winter light, the dirty snow and the unrelenting cold made the garbage look worse than it was. The courtyard at Sisler High School was heaped high with crusty snow, dried-out bagels, brown apple cores and black banana peels. It looked like a garbage dump.

But in a corner where the snow had melted to brown earth and brick walls, there was a pile of optimism: leftovers neatly shovelled into a winter compost heap.

For a group of four Grade 12 girls and their teacher, this compost was a symbol of the environmental change they are living.

Sisler's sustainability program won one of the province's top conservation awards this winter.

The winter compost heap and the program are the efforts of Lauren Sawchuk, a home economics teacher, and her cadre of student leaders.

The 2013 Manitoba Excellence in Sustainability Awards were handed out at the legislature in March at a ceremony with Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh.

This year's Champion for Sustainability was Sawchuk.

The teacher created a recycling program that turned into 101 daily tasks for students and turned them on to the environment at the same time.

Students compost, garden, recruit helpers and cook and feed the homeless. The effort is driven by volunteers. They organize cells with student leaders who recruit other students to work on various tasks.

With 50 students at Sisler involved this spring at various tasks in cells of four, the work gets spread around. Every day, everyone in the recycling army works perhaps an extra hour at school after classes.

Sawchuk's student leaders say their career goals and home life are influenced by the lessons she's taught.

"After school? Whatever I do, I want it to be sustainable, whatever career I'm going into," said Roveen Cheema, 18.

Keisha Mendoza, 17, has a worm farm she tends at home to make compost; a couple of Rubbermaid tubs rigged up with tubes to collect worm pee -- something she and the other three girls delicately call "compost tea."

"We sell them, the 'vermi' compost system, and we give the worms along with it," Mendoza said.

The two, along with Charmaine Agsalud and Lisa Huang, work after school and every summer. They've organized captains for small groups of students to maintain the compost practices and spread the word about the other programs.

They do it for fun.

"We all started with this little garden and what motivates us is we're doing this with our friends and we all really have a good time," Mendoza said.

Sandy Hull, another Sisler teacher, who happened to walk by the day the crew at the snowy compost heap, stopped to say the whole school is part of the effort now.

"Kids actually go looking for compost bins. You see them after a snack or if they have an orange peel or an apple core. Rather than throwing it in the garbage, they go out of their way to find a compost bin, because they want to be responsible," Hull said.

Agsalud added she and her fellow student leaders already have one goal in hand, thanks to the discipline they've learned. Each of them was accepted to the University of Manitoba this fall.

Sawchuk is an energetic woman who speaks with a lot of hand gestures. Ask her how this started and she'll take you back a few years and give you an update in a staccato blast that sums up years of work in mere seconds.

"It just kind of unfolded," Sawchuk said, describing a Grade 9 class three years ago that focused on the concepts of fair trade.

"It was the beginning," she said.

Sawchuk recalled teaching the class about the importance of consumers selecting services and products based on fair wages and environmentally sustainable practices.

"One thing led to another," she said.

"And I figured I could get some kids interested in these other ideas about sustainability."

That year, Sawchuk put spade to earth at the school to start a simple vegetable garden. When school broke for summer, the kids still came back to tend the new garden.

"When you have kids show up in the summer to garden, you realize you have kids who are motivated.

"We had the garden and then we had a use for compost... then, with all the stuff from the garden, we had a feast and that became an annual fall feast," Sawchuk said.

The sustainable work now done at the school includes growing the garden, making the compost, putting together compost kits, harvesting vegetables, planning and cooking for the fall feast, not to mention a cooking program three times a month and an Earth Day event where Sisler hosts an annual conference and invites other schools.

If it sounds hectic, it is.

"These girls are planning a school conference for 150, for one day, so we're busy. And my classroom kids are also making soup, cookies and biscuits and these kids will go down there and feed the homeless," the teacher said.

The 2013 Manitoba Excellence in Sustainability awards honour people and projects that find practical applications for the province's sustainability principles as outlined in its conservation policy document, known as the Green Plan.

The award is a simple glass window solidly mounted on a glass bracket. And Sawchuk held it proudly the day the compost heap was photographed.

"It's for all of us," Sawchuk said. Then she hurried off to the next task.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 G11

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