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group photo of Queen City Clean-up fifth grade girls holding trash bags

The band of young girls walked from the Fifth Grade Fortress across Providence Day’s campus like superheroes, armed with plastic grocery bags and a keen eye for trash.

Along the way, they stopped and picked up everything from pieces of paper, a banana peel, and empty plastic water bottles to discarded packets of ranch dressing and … other things they couldn’t decipher.

four photos of Queen City Clean-up fifth grade girls picking up trash around campus

“Sometimes the stuff you find is really gross, and you don’t even know what it is,” fifth-grader Nancy Naman says. “I found a moldy sock once. But it’s also fun knowing that you’re making the world a cleaner place. There’s a lot of trash being left around my school. I would like to tell everyone: Pick up so our world is better.”

Nancy and about six of her fifth-grade peers call themselves Queen City Clean-up, an environmentalist group much like the Sustainability Clubs students are a part of in the Middle and Upper schools. Most days at recess, the group goes around campus, cleaning up all of the trash under the bleachers on the new field playground and working their way toward the main campus.

Kristy Johnson, the fifth-grade lead teacher, says classroom lessons on the United Nations Sustainability Goals, including zero hunger, good health and well-being, and clean water and sanitation, sparked the students’ desire to make a difference starting on their own campus.

“I just love that it was self-directed by the students,” Ms. Johnson says. “They came up with the idea all on their own and planned it all without their teachers. That's how learning should be.

She continues: “At first, they just asked for gloves and bags so they could clean up the playground. A few days later, they walked in with laminated signs they made at home  and little stickers or buttons for them to wear while they are cleaning up.”

‘Pick up trash’

Mary Herr, a fifth-grader, is the creator of Queen City Clean-up’s posters and buttons.

One of the posters reads: “I’m not going to tell you that we’re living on a dying Earth. But I am going to tell you to pick up trash.”

She also came up with a mascot of sorts - a raccoon.

“We decided to take it upon ourselves to clean up after the people who could care less about our earth and trees,” Nancy says. “But we love it because our campus is just a little more beautiful.”

Araiya Webb, Sofie Khashman, Claire Brendon, Dilan Catlin, and Tessa Williams, along with Nancy and Mary, started the club, and their efforts are related to what they’re learning in class. They have been reading A Long Walk to Water, which focuses on clean water and sanitation. The students also have researched all 17 United Nations goals in language arts and watched video clips of what kids are doing around the world to help their communities, whether it’s battling homelessness, food shortages, or climate change.

“The girls were inspired by some of the discussions we have had in class and wanted to take action,” Ms. Johnson says.

The Lower School students are following in the footsteps of their older peers - middle school students have the Go Green Club and upper school students have the Sustainability Club.

The Go Green Club is made up of about 15 students, advisor Jen Moser says, and they volunteer at the E-waste drive, Great Pumpkin Compost Drive, park cleanups, weeding the garden, educating the student body on the three-stream waste systems, and other issues and Earth Day presentations.

In the past, the club also has raised trout and released them into South Mountains State Park,” Moser says.

Upper School’s Sustainability Club focuses on campus waste sorting, including events like the E-Waste Drive, Great Pumpkin Drop Off, greenway trash pickups, helping to recycle Providence Day spirit wear, and helping clean and donate unclaimed water bottles, advisor Jack Hudson says.

The fourth annual Green Week E-Waste Drive will be held from April 23 through April 26 on the Upper Deck. Providence Day teams up with other Charlotte-area independent schools to hold simultaneous drives for donated unwanted, outdated, or broken electronic equipment for refurbishing or recycling.

The Sustainability Club also works on engagement with Lower School students and those at Rama Road Elementary on environmental sustainability topics.  

Sign of growing awareness

“I'm very excited by the passion this fifth-grade group is demonstrating, and I think it's a sign of a growing societal awareness of the importance of environmental sustainability,” Mr. Hudson says, “as well as a sign that Lower School curriculum and even our waste-sorting efforts are helping students see themselves in relation to the environment around them and recognize both how people can negatively impact the environment and also how they can individually work to have a positive impact.”

Araiya is very mindful of the environment, especially when she thinks about the future.

“It’s not just about picking up trash today,” Araiya says. “It’s about thinking about when you’re older and thinking about the people that come after us. We don’t want them living in trash.”

She says the club began when she and another friend were out looking for a friend’s bracelet.

“We were looking for a bracelet, and we found a Band-Aid,” Araiya says. “We decided to pick it up. Then we decided, maybe we should start picking up all the trash.”

Along with picking up trash, the club, with the help of the Upper School Club, is looking at creating a how-to video on sorting waste and how to recycle.

“I'm so proud of their efforts,” Ms. Johnson says. “I stress all of the time in class that just because they are young, it doesn't mean that they can't do great things. We also talk about how taking care of our small part of the world might not seem like a solution to all of the world's massive problems, but if everyone did their part and focused on something they were passionate about, then we would start making strides in achieving the UN goals.”