Jae Yoon was a freshman at when everything shut down for COVID-19. Wanting to “thrive, not just survive,” he used the pandemic lockdown to hone his golf skills and practice standardized testing. He also maintained his role as a longtime volunteer at Love a Sea Turtle (LAST).
Jae volunteers across several organizations, including a program he started six years ago called Better Bag Solutions. It’s a project that fights against single-use plastic that has led him to donate over 2,500 reusable alternatives in his community. Last summer, he created and directed Wilson on Water Golf Camp and Clinic, a program offering free instruction to underserved kids. Now 17, he balances college applications, competitive golf, and applying for colleges with initiatives to preserve the environment and educate youth on sustainability practices as a Riley’s Way Call for Kindness Fellow.
What inspires you to volunteer?
On November 10, 2016, I was nine or 10. I was riding along the highway after a recent hurricane, and I saw trees decorated like Christmas trees with colored plastic bags. I remember thinking to myself, “Is anybody going to come and pick this up? Or is it just going to stay there and kill the environment?” I felt like I should do something.
So, I went to the Greenville City Council, and I delivered a speech encouraging them to raise their political will and courage. I coined the phrase “Keep the green in Greenville.” Since then, I’ve used that motto to work towards that goal. Recently, I partnered with River Park North and Metallix to host the Keeping the Green in Greenville Day in honor of plastic-free July. It was really exciting to see the City follow my lead and take appropriate action towards environmental conservancy.
Describe your volunteerism.
Love a Sea Turtle is an ocean and environmental conservancy awareness group. About 18 years ago, the founder of the organization, a young girl, felt inspired to raise money for a sea turtle hospital, so she decided to bake cookies and sell coffee. Over time, it’s become much larger, and now it’s a completely youth-led organization with a few changes. We say “love a sea turtle,” but we actually don’t work with sea turtles, because you do have to be over the age of 18 to directly work with them in North Carolina. We turned it into Leadership Advocacy Service Training. LASD. And I’ve been a member and a volunteer for about eight years.
I’ve been a founder of my own organization or project for six years. I am the North Carolina representative for National Youth Council Project Green Schools and an ambassador for the FXB Climate Advocates program. And I’m also the co-founder of Plastic-Free NC. All of these are promoting the same message and work towards the same goal.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
When I started this at a young age, environmental and ocean conservancy wasn’t seen as valuable. No one understood why it is important to put in effort. Over the years, I’ve seen a change in people’s perspectives. They’ve started to understand why it’s important to take care of the planet, and I’ve seen more conservation efforts. It’s really refreshing, especially with the Keep the Green in Greenville Day. It was very rewarding to see the public take action when I’ve been pushing it for years.
What are a couple of easy things everyone can do to help the environment?
First, you can skip the straw at the restaurants. That‘s the easiest way to reduce the amount plastic waste going in our landfills. Second, bring your own water bottle. There are refillable water stations everywhere now. Bringing your own reusable bag to grocery stores is also a good habit, but it’s important to use that bag over and over again to be net positive for the environment.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
For Love a Sea Turtle, we have we have a Garden Work Day coming up. LAST covers a broad scope. One of the programs is called the Community for Environmental Sustainability. Their focus is the regular maintenance of a Greenville communal garden and orchard near the ECU campus. Most—if not all—of the produce that grows there is donated to a local food kitchen or charity event. We’re proud of that.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back to or be involved in their community?
I really believe in the idea that youth can change the world. I think a youth voice goes a longer way than people imagine. I feel like everyone should take action now instead of kicking the can further down the road. Getting involved helps us gain an idea of what we can do as a community and influence others around us.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I think you should always fight for what you believe in. I think you should stand up for what is truly important to you and not listen to anyone else. There have been times I’ve spoken to a high-ranking public representative or government official that just turned down or ignored my requests or ideas, and it took persistence to make change in my hometown. I’m just barely scratching the surface, but eventually, good things will come if you keep on going.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Jae? Find local volunteer opportunities.