One student at a time

Caring for the Kenai celebrates its 23rd year improving the community

If a tsunami were rolling toward the Kenai Peninsula or Mount Redoubt was threatening eruption — if residents faced a looming disaster — this year’s Caring for the Kenai winner could have invented a tool to help prepare for the impact.


As it turns out, there’s a smart phone app for that.

“If there was a tsunami headed towards the Peninsula, it would tell you to head for high ground. If there was a volcano that erupted, it would say cover your mouth for the ash,” Elise Webber said.

The 15-year-old Homer High School freshman won $1,600 for her first-place idea in the 23rd annual Kenai Peninsula Borough-wide contest.

Her idea for the contest was to create a smart phone application that would alert its user of an impending disaster, provide a list of survival supplies and their expected expiration date, and — likely through Google Maps — locate the user’s family members, she said.

Saturday night, about 100 Peninsula residents and local and state politicians met for a banquet in the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center to celebrate the 12 students selected from the 400 contestants.

Second place and $1,100 was awarded to Shaylee Rizzo, an 18-year-old Nikiski High School senior. Third place, and $900, was awarded to Tayla Cabana, a 17-year-old at Homer High School.

More than $20,000 was also awarded to the high schools the finalist students attend, said Josselyn O’Connor, development director for the Kenai Watershed Forum, the organization that hosts the contest.

“It (has) gradually morphed into a real action contest,” O’Connor said. “We saw these students actually thinking up an idea and then doing that idea.”

While Webber is still in the design phase of her project, she said she plans take it further, maybe even take some smart phone application training courses over the summer.

O’Connor said that attitude is exactly how the contest has, over its 23 years, changed the Peninsula.

“Of course the most recent and big one is Courtney Stroh with ROC the Kenai,” she said.

Stroh’s contest idea was to raise awareness about fish waste on Kenai’s North and South beaches during the dipnet season, but it has since earned her the 2012 President’s Environmental Youth Award and Alaska Youth of the Year by the Boys and Grils Clubs of Alaska.

“Instead of barking about a problem, it’s like, ‘Let’s go solve it,” O’Connor said.

Rizzo said that is what her project has done.

It has evolved over three years through the contest, she said.

It started as a children’s book she would read in elementary school classrooms to warn about feeding moose and avoiding them on the roads. In its second year she added her sister in a moose costume to her approach, Missy the Moose. And, now in its third year, Rizzo has raised money to place ads in the radio and papers and erect several “Missy the Moose” road signs. One sits near Pickle Hill, she said.

“I’ll be in the middle of town some days and some kid’ll come up to me and say, ‘Oh, do you know Missy the Moose?’” she said.

For the awareness she raised, she said, she thinks her campaign has reduced the number of moose-vehicle collisions.

Cabana, competing in the contest for her first time, said her project would change her community, too.

She called the Homer Mayor Beth Wythe, harbor directors and divers to research ways she can clean the trash from the seafloor around the Spit in Homer. She used a remotely operated underwater vehicle — ROV — to site the trash build-up.

“She’s still got so many hours of contacting to do,” said her mother, Amber Cabana.

Through all her phone calls, Tayla Cabana researched an incident command system as a viable way to clean the Spit.

“I’m trying to spread it to other harbors,” Cabana said. She will work out the bugs, she said, in Homer first.

She will dive to clean up the trash Sept. 21, she said.

“(The students) are not just like, ‘Oh, I want this done,’” said Phillip Morin, a biology, dance and music teacher at Nikiski High School. “They’re going to go after it.”

Morin said the contest teaches the students persistence, and it gives them a reason to undertake the project.

“Frequently students will ask why do we have to know this. … ‘How does this relate to my life?’” he said. But the project fixes that, he said. “It’s authentic learning,” he said.

Dan Schwartz can be reached at