A Cook Inlet Academy student took first place at Thursday's 21st Caring for the Kenai competition for her reforestation project called "A Gift of Green."
Kelsie Leaf won $1,600 and beat out 11 other finalists for her initiative to replant the 34 acres of trees leveled during the construction of Kenai's Walmart store.
Leaf, 16, contacted Duane Bannock of the Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program -- he's supplying the trees --and Ferdinand Dominic of Walmart -- he's supplying lunch and snacks for the volunteers -- for help with the project. Leaf is responsible for gathering a team of dedicated workers, who will plant the trees in a naturally under-forested area on Aug. 1 and 2.
"It feels terrific," Leaf said of winning the top prize. "I put a lot of work into getting here, and I'm so thankful to the people that helped me."
Leaf ended her presentation by playing a song on her guitar that summarized the trajectory of "A Gift of Green." She said she wrote the song in her family's motor home during an 80-day road trip across the United States.
The Caring for the Kenai competition was held in the Little Theater at Kenai Central High School, where 12 students from various borough high schools presented their ideas that addressed the CFK question, "What can I do, invent, or create to better care for the environment of the Kenai Peninsula, or to improve the area's preparedness for a natural disaster?" Eight judges graded each presenter with a rubic charting originality, depth of research, effectiveness of visual aids, and other criteria used for determining the winner.
Each student was identified only by number while presenting, in order to ensure judge impartiality. This led to a bizarre rendition of "Happy Birthday" when it was revealed that Number 13 was celebrating her 16th birthday.
The names of the competitors were eventually revealed when the scores had been tabulated. The six entrants who placed between sixth and twelfth were awarded $350, and their exact places were not revealed.
Two Nikiski High School students, Dylon Holloway and Melinda Hampton, received $1,100 and second place for their project to protect the Kasilof River dunes. The endeavor is two years in the making and has been met with great hostility by some Kasilof residents, but the two girls still persevered and a fence will be constructed around the dunes within the next month or so.
Third place and $900 went to Bradley Hamilton, a KCHS freshman, who proposed installing mile markers along the lower 42 miles of the Kenai River to aid people in identifying their whereabouts in the event of a medical or environmental disaster.
Courtney Stroh, a 15-year-old freshman at KCHS, took fourth and $750 with her "ROC the Kenai" campaign, an effort to encourage dipnetters to Respect Our Community. Stroh grew tired of the "salmon Armageddon" she saw on the beach every fishing season, and wants to persuade dipnetters to "Pack 'Em Home Whole" to avoid the messy, gut-strewn landscape.
"It's really sad to see all of our beaches, which are so pretty, trashed by that stuff," Stroh said after the competition. "I'm so excited about my project and I can't wait to keep working on it."
Katy Knackstedt, also of KCHS, won fifth place and $650 for her campaign to keep smokers from polluting the environment with their cigarette butts, and Greyson Hansen took sixth and $500 for devising environmentally-focused curriculum for elementary school kids.
"These kids don't just stop at the drawing board," said Denise Newbould, a judge and founder of Aware Consulting, an environmental consulting firm based in Soldotna. "They really take it all the way."
The 12 finalists will all attend an awards banquet at Central Peninsula Hospital on April 30 that honors their efforts and involvement in Caring for the Kenai.
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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