Gardening is often described as a peaceful activity, but for Michelle Song, it’s the sights, smells and the small steps she takes each day that paint the bigger picture of her service learning.
“I smell the earth, I smell the grass. I smell clean air and even on a hot day, it’s satisfying to see weeds being pulled or things being watered,” says Michelle. “Service learning has an impact, because it can help people you might not really think about. Volunteering is one of the smallest efforts you can make, but it carries the greatest impact. (My gardening) could help someone, maybe from hours away.”
As the founder of the Community for Environmental Sustainability (CFES), the 15-year-old Greenville, North Carolina gardener and beekeeper is utilizing nutrition education to help reduce hunger, create awareness of the importance of bees and pollinators, and serve as a community collaborator. She helps to maintain East Carolina University’s Greenville Community Garden and Orchard, runs a nutrition education program and distributes fresh food from the garden and orchard to community members in need. Teaching others about climate change and ways to care for their communities are small steps Michelle says she takes each day to combat the worsening impact of climate change.
“Even in such a small city (like Greenville) there is pollution in the rivers. That affects the ecosystem for people and animals who need cleaner rivers to survive. More recently, I’ve heard about a drought in our area. That prevents bees from collecting the nectar they need, so they produce less honey, which produces less energy for (the bees) and in turn affects all of us.”
Founding the CFES initiative in 2021 through the environmental sustainability organization Love A Sea Turtle (LAST), Michelle first became interested in understanding the effects of climate change as a LAST volunteer. She is now leveraging CFES to share that information with her greater community, specifically targeting youth.
“I had the opportunity to volunteer at a summer camp, and I realized that a lot of kids weren’t aware about things like baking or learning about nutrition, and how much fresh foods help you. One kid told me he was really interested and he wanted to do this when he was older. Sure, he was a young kid, but it made me happy because that’s how I got involved as well. Providing opportunities to people who haven’t had the chance to learn about environmental conservation in a school setting makes me feel hopeful. (If these) kids are willing to be more mindful of the environment, it means that there are people that care and are willing to make changes for the cause, even people as young as me.”
Growing interest and seeding education across her community, Michelle has been joined by hundreds of volunteers for CFES’ biweekly garden workdays, including student volunteers from many local high schools and universities. In addition, Michelle helps to maintain the beehives in the garden and orchard, and conducts educational and interactive STEM demos for summer camps and local schools, teaching students about the importance of gardening and beekeeping to the ecosystem, and how fresh gardening affects them personally. Michelle says it’s her duty to give back to the community that has given her so much.
“There are things we often overlook, (but) through volunteering, you realize so many people out there volunteer to give things to us. We take it for granted. I’m still learning to this day that it’s a duty for community members to give back in a certain way, whether that is planting gardens or serving as a firefighter, or having important conversations with your neighbors.”
That sense of duty, says Daniel Sokolovic, volunteer mentor and coordinator for Love A Sea Turtle, is what makes Michelle’s service shine.
“She has been a leader, an innovator and has inspired others to join her program and other programs associated with Love A Sea Turtle. The Community for Environmental Sustainability creates a sustainable community, but also produces an open community that is welcome to all ideas. (Michelle) attacks the problem of sustainability on multiple fronts. The program isn’t just about her, and that’s the beauty of what she and some of her teammates are working on, allowing people to find their own lane and voice. The gardens and orchards provide a platform for the community for ideas, for community identity. It’s a meeting place, it’s a place to volunteer, and its importance really grew during COVID.”
Michelle’s outlook for the future is bright, as she inspires the youngest generation to drive positive change.
“I hope that as youth, we educate and will find a way to help the environment regardless of how we do it. Climate change is real and it’s affecting us in all sorts of ways. Even smaller things like beekeeping can be used to make things better, so through volunteering, we can use this as a sense of hope and change.”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Michelle Song? Find local volunteer opportunities.