Growing up loving the outdoors, Do Something Awards Semi-Finalist Ryland King knew he wanted to promote environmental conservation and protection. He created Environmental Education for the Next Generation. Now, through this organization, college students go into elementary school classrooms and teach ways to live green.
1. How did you feel when your first learned of the problem you are addressing?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when thinking about the pressing global environmental crises of our day—climate change, land degradation, and resource scarcity, among many others—pose clear threats to the future of this earth and its inhabitants. When I first learned about these complex issues, I found it very difficult to imagine what a possible solution could be. I was humbled by the abundance of burning questions, and deeply troubled by the profound lack of answers.
2. How do you feel about it now?
Almost three years after founding Environmental Education for the Next Generation (EENG), my initial discouragement has transformed to a relentless sense of optimism. I’ve watched as the thousands of 1st and 2nd grade program participants we’ve taught have matured into passionate learners, not to mention powerful beacons of environmental change. These kids are the key to unlocking a brighter future for us all.
3. Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
Environmental Education for the Next Generation (EENG) wouldn’t be where it is today without the incredible community of supporters that have taken up our cause. I work day in and day out knowing that my team of directors and over 200 volunteer instructors share my vision for creating change from the youngest members of society up. When times get tough, I need only look to this group for the inspiration to pull my head up, press on, and continue doing all that I can to make our shared dream a reality.
4. Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?
Shortly after completing our first year of operations in Santa Barbara, we started receiving phone calls from teachers and parents commending us on our work and requesting the program in more schools and classrooms throughout the county. Where just a year before it had been a struggle getting up and running in even a handful of classes, the influx of inbound requests demonstrated that our program was having the desired effect, and our unique approach to environmental science and sustainability education had kids, parents, and teachers abuzz.
5. What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start and were growing your project?
In the early days of EENG, the biggest challenge we faced was demonstrating to elementary school teachers, administrators, and parents that we were serious about building a long-term partnership with the school system, and about offering our program completely free of charge. Since we hadn’t yet proven ourselves, it felt like our youth was actually working against us, as many who agreed to meet with us were skeptical about our commitment and ability to execute on the vision we presented. Once we broke into our first few classrooms, however, perceptions rapidly began to change.
6. What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?
Running a nonprofit organization while managing a full university course load over the past three years has taught me a lot about the importance of personal sustainability. It’s been overwhelming at times, but I’ve always remembered to take a minute to enjoy the little things in life, share smiles, and communicate with my teammates with 100% honesty. The most important thing I’ve learned is to lead my team the way I live my life: with compassion, authenticity, enthusiasm, and joy above all else.
7. What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
What has surprised and inspired me most along this journey has been the power of a shared vision to motivate entire communities, from the youth up. I started with just an idea, and a group of friends who shared a passion for environmental preservation. By empowering my peers to lead and challenging them to reach beyond their comfort zones, we’ve been able to build something far bigger than any of us could have ever imagined.
8. What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
In the early stages of bringing any idea to reality, it’s easy to get discouraged. Don’t give up! Build a team of peers that share your vision, and communicate regularly to keep each other motivated, focused, and on the same page. Be patient and start small, but never lose sight of your overarching vision.
9. If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?
One thing I realize now is just how much I didn’t know about nonprofit management when first starting EENG. While this has definitely worked to our advantage in many respects, as it has allowed us to break from accepted norms and forge our own path, there were also times when asking for help and seeking out experienced mentors would have made our lives a lot easier. If I had it all to do again, I think the biggest thing I’d change would be to build an advisory board of representative stakeholders in the early stages of development, and to seek their guidance frequently when challenges arose.
10. What’s next for your project?
Now that the program is running strong in California, we’ve started planning a new initiative that we’ve dubbed EENG2015. We’re in the process of packaging up our program to allow for the deployment of self-sufficient chapters on college campuses and in elementary schools across the nation. Our goal is to make it as simple and easy as possible for any college student to start an EENG chapter on his or her campus, extending the reach and impact of our curriculum and educational approach exponentially.
11. If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for your organization, who would it be and why?
Given his long-term commitment to “securing a sustainable future for our planet and all of its inhabitants,” I think Leonardo DiCaprio would be the perfect celebrity to film a PSA for EENG. As evidenced by his educational efforts like the production of 11th Hour, a documentary about the impact of climate change and what we can do to stop it, DiCaprio clearly shares our vision that we can solve these global issues, if we’re informed and work together for a common cause.
What Can You Do?
Learn more about all of the Do Something Awards Semi-Finalists.