“Over here,” 10-year-old Ava Szpila shrieks with excitement while leaning far over the side of the boat. “There’s loads over here!”
As her Canary Wharf College WE club classmates rush to her side, Ava plunges her net deep into the cold black water before pulling it back up to dump her treasure into the boat. The object of her desire: plastic floating in the River Thames.
The students are cleaning up the river—plastic fishing, as they call out energetically to questioning passersby—and Ava’s bounty adds to the growing pile of refuse fished out of the canal system. Their primary school, in the East End London community of Isle of Dogs, sits next to the Thames. Its 280 students walk to school along the river each day, bearing witness to the plastic washing up on its shores.
The boat they ride in, dubbed Poly-Mer in a nod to its materials, was made by an environmental charity from 99 per cent recycled plastic—the first of its kind in the world. The 9,000 bottles that went into its construction are proof that the plastic the students find can be put to good use, instead of being left to pollute the river and endanger wildlife.
Canary Wharf is a place of contrasts. Dubbed Wall Street on the Water, its towers of glass and metal stretching to the sky mark the heart of the United Kingdom’s financial centre. Hundreds of feet below— where 12 students now clean the river piece-by-piece in the plastic punt—flounder, bream, falcons, warblers and even a family of seals make their home.
For students at Canary Wharf College, the river is an everyday feature of their lives; they learn to sail in its calm waters and stare out at it from their bedrooms. Their bond with it is the motivation behind their action plan: preserve what you love.
“The river is my neighbour,” explains eight-year-old WE club member Celia Armstrong. “It’s part of my home and I love it But we need to help it and the animals.”
The school’s WE club was already fundraising for a WE Villages development project in rural China, and campaigning to support a local charity that works with young people who care for their family members. Still, when Celia’s mother suggested the school get involved in cleaning up the community and the river, they jumped at the opportunity. Soon, the students were spending their free time on the open water, eagerly fishing out rubbish. They’ve found teak chairs, clothing, pylons—Ava even found a $100 bill, which she gave to a teacher to donate to WE.
Chloe Hebburn, the teacher leading the WE club, is quick to point out that the project is entirely student driven. At their monthly WE club meetings, students bring issues from their lives, ideas they’ve come up with in classes or projects they want to lead. “We give them a lot of freedom and have found that they are problem solvers,” she explains proudly. “We’re there to support them, but they lead the way.”
That initiative led them all the way to WE Day UK in March, where they joined thousands of other students from across the country engaged in community projects. With speeches from activists and icons, celebrities with a cause and other young people just like them, they left inspired to dream even bigger. “It’s a powerful message for them to see what young people can achieve,” says Chloe about the impact of WE Day. “Often young people feel like they can’t make a difference but seeing what others have done, they come back empowered.”
This bitterly cold February day exemplifies the impact of encouraging young people to take the reins. Joining Chloe’s students are young people from another community school. Their participation was made possible because Canary Wharf College’s WE club applied for a Virgin Atlantic Change Is in the Air Award this year. The grant is available to all UK schools and supports them with sustainability projects. Canary Wharf College is using the money to build a movement throughout their community by offsetting some of the costs of other schools joining them for plastic-fishing excursions.
“They want their message to be bigger than just them, just our school,” explains Chloe. “And this grant and WE have allowed us to spread the message.”
While on the boat, the students brace against driving winds that pick up speed through the corridors created by the towering buildings. The sky overhead is a daunting grey, threatening a storm. And the temperature is dropping, chilling exposed hands and ears. But the biting cold doesn’t freeze their enthusiasm. They are too busy hunting for plastic. Their goal is to collect enough to make another boat—9,000 bottles is a tall order, but Ava isn’t daunted.
Picking up one piece of plastic at a time, the change these students are creating is as much in themselves as in the river. The energy they bring to this project will carry them forward to the next one and help them become strong advocates and leaders for the rest of their lives.
Jesse Mintz is a lifelong learner and believer in the power of stories to educate and inspire. He knows everyone has an interesting story—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.