It was a patio courtyard that sat empty for her first two years as a student at Sisler High School.
But, when Thea Olalia graduated from the school this year, it was the beginning stages of a biosphere, complete with natural prairie tall grass and the early stems of trees, hazelnut plants and Saskatoon bushes.
It’s one small part of the legacy the Tyndall Park resident leaves behind for other students to build upon and which earned Olalia a $250 Global Citizenship Award from the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC) and a $5,000 Toyota Earth Day scholarship.
"I really like the idea of utilizing a space you already have and not having to go out and find something to work on," said Olalia, who turns 18 this fall.
"It goes to show that you can work with what you have. A lot of people think they have to do something big, something grand from what they’re already doing, but environmentalism starts from using what you already have in the right way."
Olalia was the president of the Students of Sisler Environmental Helpers (SOSEH) club in her Grade 11 and 12 years, helping to turn the biosphere project from an idea into a reality, along with bringing an electronic waste collection system to the school.
Before that, she was helping the club plant its burgeoning apple orchard, which supplies both Winnipeg Harvest and the school’s foods class, and fundraising for other club projects such as the school’s solar wall, as well as helping to organize conferences on sustainability and environmental issues.
"I just have a natural interest in botany. It just clicked," Olalia said of being drawn to join the club in Grade 9.
The amount of work SOSEH has accomplished environmentally is an impressive achievement, considering the province’s largest high school didn’t have an environmental club six years ago, SOSEH teacher-advisor Greg Shedden said.
Shedden helped form the club with students after they originally conceived of an idea to raise money for panda bear conservation. Thinking the idea wouldn’t work, Shedden convinced them to start a club that would work for the school instead and organize a conference looking at ways to reduce the school’s environmental footprint.
"The whole point was to discuss what we could do to accomplish that," said Shedden, who has taught at Sisler for the last nine years.
The school’s solar wall, installed in 2011, has cut the heating bill for its Taras Korol Theatre by 40%. The biosphere, which will eventually be enclosed to become a greenhouse, will become a classroom for experimental study.
Shedden, who advises a handful of other school clubs, including the gay-straight alliance and an anti-tobacco group, also received a Global Citizenship Award from MCIC.
"I have more fun working with these kids than should be allowed," he said.
"We’ve done a lot of amazing things and I can’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished together."
Olalia heads to the University of Manitoba this fall. She hopes one day to get into medical school, though she admits she’s still torn on her career choice and her competing interests.
"I think people take life for granted and, because of that, they just live and don’t contribute to the world as much as they really should if they knew they would get sick tomorrow," she said.
"I want to be the medium by which people get their second, third, fourth chance to do good with their life, good for the world, good for other people."