Magazine article USA TODAY

Seeking the Environmental Fountain of Youth

Magazine article USA TODAY

Seeking the Environmental Fountain of Youth

Article excerpt

IMAGINE GROWING UP in an environment so delicate that a simple change in water level completely alters the ecosystem. Southern Louisiana is made up of swamps, bogs, marshes, estuaries, and fens--also known as wetlands, which are home to a wide variety of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles and a natural water filter and purifying system. Louisiana contains 40% to 45% of all wetlands in the U.S., as the state is the gateway for the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The lower Mississippi drains more than 24,000,000 acres out of seven states.

Remember the British Petroleum oil spill of 2010 and the devastating images of animals, beaches, and trees all covered in black goo. An estimated 4,900,000 barrels of oil ended up in the Gulf of Mexico. At one point, a 22 mile-long plume of oil was reported. Actor Ian Somerhalder--best known for playing Damon Salvatore in "The Vampire Diaries" and Boone Carlyle in "Lost"--grew up in the marshes of southern Louisiana, just north of New Orleans. From the very beginning, he was taught to respect and cherish the environment and all it represents.

During the BP crisis, what Somerhalder was seeing on the news did not concur with what actually was happening--and this made him angry and frustrated. "I don't ever want anyone to feel that helpless again--not myself, not my family, not my children, your family, no one." Out of this experience, the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF) was born on Dec. 8, 2010, "to support projects that protect our habitat and nurture our furry friends.

"When we dump toxic waste into our rivers, it's essentially dumping waste into our bloodstream. When we ravage forests, we literally deforest our own lungs. Nothing we do is actually outside of us."

To inspire and empower positive change, ISF has turned to youth and social media. Why youth? Think back to your childhood. Do you recall how life was full of possibilities? You could create and be anything you wanted. There were no filters or boundaries--just your imagination and free will to take you anywhere you wanted to go. Somerhalder talks about "the curiosity of kids. You present problems to them, and it's unbelievable the answers they come up with. Because they are not looking through these filters, they haven't been contaminated by chemicals, pollutants, and really bad guidance. These building blocks are what's missing [in today's society]: reverence, gratitude, and compassion."

So, how do you inspire a generation that lives and breathes in a world made up of smartphones, tablets, devices, and video games to have love, gratitude, and compassion for the environment and its contents, and, ultimately, for themselves and others?

This is what ISF strives to answer: "Experiential learning shapes who we are." For instance, points out Somerhalder, recall the first time you went to a planetarium. "When you come out, your relationship with the sky is never the same. You have such a different connected relationship with that sky. Opportunity, experience, and education empower you to go do what you're going to do. We don't become doctors, lawyers, etc. without it, right?"

As a result, ISF has created the [U]Factor program, "designed to help youth identify their passion, cultivate their talents, and amplify their purpose.... Through a series of hands-on exercises, participants will be able to develop emotional, social, and business skills needed to navigate the varied seas of life. Unlike typical youth programs that consist of people talking at you, this program presents a unique opportunity to explore the depths of your passions and turn that into an evolving, ever-changing plan." The program is designed to help youth develop a tool kit to succeed in the world--with skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, how to innovate, understanding social structure, and more.

ISF does not stop there, though, as as Somerhalder and Executive Director Kim Klingler look to implement the power of the purse. …

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