Grade 10 student Briana Zhong was awarded a World Wildlife Federation Go Wild grant to prepare home nature packs for students. Photo courtesy Briana Zhong

WWF grant aids environment, mental health

  • January 29, 2021

Briana Zhong is stepping up to help the environment while at the same time supporting her school mates in managing the stress and isolation of COVID-19.

Winner of a World Wildlife Federation (WWF) Go Wild grant, the Grade 10 student at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill, Ont., will be using the award to prepare and distribute home nature packs to as many students as she can. Recognizing the positive impact nature can have on mental health, the project aims to create virtual opportunities for students passionate about the environment to meaningfully engage while apart.

“Most students in my school are completing all their courses online and they’re starting to feel socially isolated and mentally drained,” said Zhong. “Since this is a difficult time for everyone, it’s easy to forget about restoring habitats. I feel like I need to sort of bring light onto that topic during this time because nature and our environment provides so much for us as human beings, from our clean water to our breathable air. Preserving our Earth is just protecting our future really, and as high school students it’s our job to protect that for future generations and for ourselves.”

With the $500 award, Zhong plans to assemble the nature packs with items for various activities such as growing native plants, setting up bird feeders, neighbourhood and local park cleanup, information resources and other ways to inspire students to create habitats for wildlife.

Through the WWF’s annual initiative, more than $185,000 has been awarded to students and educators from kindergarten to post-secondary across the nation. Recipients include students from several other Catholic schools engaged in projects such as creating spaces to nurturing Indigenous teaching, tracking pollinators like butterflies and bees and helping them to thrive, school yard gardens and restoration projects.

After submitting a proposal to the organization in the fall, Zhong was over the moon to hear earlier this month that she had been awarded the grant.

“I just came up with this plan and then for me to be able to actually get the resources to make it happen was just amazing,” said Zhong. “I couldn’t believe it. I feel so lucky to be able to get this opportunity, to make the change I want to see.”

A member of the environment club at the school, Zhong has been working with teacher moderators Kirsten Cruz and Rebecca Lowe on a plan. With fewer opportunities for students to socialize due to pandemic restrictions and most school clubs on hiatus, staff are excited the project will create spaces for students to connect outside of academics.

“The biggest thing for us in this initiative is focusing on the mental health and the well-being of our students,” said Cruz. “That’s really what I think (Zhong) is trying to do here and that’s the reason why I kind of got on board with this too. We’re just trying to find ways to give our students an outlet. Even though we are in this pandemic, everyone’s been focused on their marks and trying to do things so that they can be successful. Maybe they’re not focusing as much on building a community and those friendships and that social aspect that they get when they see each other every day at school. She’s not going to be able to get this for every single student in school, but it’s something that will help.”

St. Robert has been designated an EcoSchool, a certification that recognizes environmental excellence through incorporating nature and wildlife education and environmentally responsible action into the school setting.

Principal Joseph Servidio says among several environmental initiatives, the school has made efforts to reduce plastic bottles by setting up water stations and encouraging students to bring their own canteens, while also working to go paperless.

An A+ student, Zhong has also been involved in various other initiatives including a project she began with her sister called Gifts That Smile, where she helped distribute 60 care packages to Chartwell Gibson Retirement Residence and the Women’s Centre of York Region during the Christmas season.

Servidio says Zhong is an inspiration to other young people to do even more to combat the many issues impacting the natural environment and the community.

“If every principal could have a student like Briana, we would die and go to school heaven,” joked Servidio. “It is so comforting coming to work and seeing young ladies or young men like Briana who really take on the initiative of caring about the world that we live in, and that in itself gives me great hope for the future.”

Zhong aims to give out the packages in the early spring due to distribution challenges under the current lockdown restrictions. With two academic years now impacted by the pandemic, Zhong hopes the packages will show classmates just how much their well-being means to her and the staff.

“Being in this difficult time these packages are a gift of hope and of happiness,” said Zhong. “More than just the items inside, I want students when they receive the packages to see that we still care about them. We are still in this great school community, and it’s a gift to show that we’re all still here and we’re in this together.”

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