Today’s Students Are Tomorrow’s Environmental Leaders. Grades of Green Is Providing the Guidance They Need

The future is green.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Amber Klinck
  • Photographed by
    Monica Orozco

Sam Torres was in elementary school when she was first introduced to Grades of Green, a nonprofit that provides mentorship and leadership training to students—empowering them to become the environmental leaders of tomorrow. Today Sam is a senior at Mira Costa High School and more committed than ever to the organization. “I found I had a passion for helping the environment that I didn’t know was there before,” she says.

Verte in action

“Sam is an absolute treasure,” notes Grades of Green’s marketing and communications director James Saracini. “[She’s been with us] for a long time and has always been a shining star for Grades of Green.”

What began in 2007 as a volunteer-based program created to educate students on environmentalism by four Grand View Elementary School moms has evolved into a nonprofit organization that spans 47 states and 27 countries.

“In total, we’ve impacted more than 670,000 students,” James points out. Students working with Grades of Green serve their communities as environmental advocates when speaking publicly or addressing government officials through focused campaigns designed to raise awareness among their peers, and with hands-on events like beach and harbor cleanups.

What’s incredible is that while students are working to implement environmental change, they’re also learning skills that will benefit them professionally regardless of the career they pursue. During her time with Grades of Green, Sam has had public speaking opportunities, she’s collaborated with other nonprofits and private businesses, and she’s participated in student-led marketing campaigns.

Last year her team’s Climate Solutions Campaign won an Eco Grant. Sam introduced the first Grades of Green student-led club at Mira Costa High School and was named Best Student Leader through Grades of Green’s Student Recognition Awards.

“Our students have these really strong leadership skills that they can then use to create environmental action and impact. We’re empowering these leaders so they can be prepared to deal with some of the challenges that are oncoming and create innovative solutions as we move forward into the new reality of the climate crisis.”

“Our students, whether they are pursuing business or environmentalism or nonprofit work or government, they have these really strong leadership skills that they can then use to create environmental action and impact,” James says. “We’re empowering these leaders so they can be prepared to deal with some of the challenges that are oncoming and create innovative solutions as we move forward into the new reality of the climate crisis.”

Grades of Green founders Shaya Kirkpatrick, Lisa Coppedge, Suzanne Kretschmer and Kim Lewand Martin

During her junior year, Sam and her team channeled the power of social media to spread their message with a Meatless Monday campaign. “We challenged our classmates or anyone in the South Bay to eat meatless on Mondays,” Sam explains. Then she and her team partnered with a number of local businesses that donated goods as an incentive to those who participated by posting their “Meatless Monday” meal on Instagram. Everyone who posted was entered into a raffle and was eligible to win the donated goods.

“We were able to get around 40,000 interactions with our campaign,” Sam notes. “It was a really awesome thing to see people get around a cause that we thought was so important. If we were to shift to a more plant-based way of eating as a society and use our land more efficiently, it would be much better for the environment.”

This year, Sam speaks on behalf of her fellow Grades of Green students at the Verte 2021 gala. Verte is a celebration of Mother Earth that includes a silent auction, dinner, awards and an after-party with dancing. The event is hosted by LAcarGuy at Audi Pacific.

This year Grades of Green is introducing for the first time their Mother Earth Award honoring Kathy Kellogg Johnson. “Kathy is absolutely amazing,” James says. “She’s done incredible work, both domestically as well as globally, in her philanthropy.”

The award is, in part, inspired by stories from Grades of Green students who credit their mothers as the source of their environmental engagement. “In the environmental movement, probably the most passionate and driving forces are women and mothers,” James says. “And they’re often the folks who are unrecognized. We find that it’s super important for us to have the Mother Earth Award to elevate the story of the women environmentalists who every day are taking action on the environment.”

The Environmental Business Leadership Award goes to James Hartzberg. “James is absolutely incredible. He and LAcarGuy have been such big supporters of ours throughout the years,” James Saracini says.

As a senior, Sam is thinking about her next steps. “I know that I for sure want to do something with environmental studies. I think marine science because I just really love the ocean.” But the work she’s done with Grades of Green has certainly made an impact, and she’s not done yet. “I want to stay involved and keep spreading awareness.”

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