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Project winners travel to meet President Bush

Posted: Monday, June 04, 2001

Who knows what a school project can eventually lead to.

For three former Soldotna High School graduates, their advance placement government class project led to a trip to Washington, D.C., and a meeting they probably won't forget.

Michael Penland, Eric Soderquist and Paul Kim traveled to the nation's capital April 24 to receive the President's Environmental Youth Award at a White House Rose Garden ceremony for a project that was originally for their government class and later turned into a Caring for the Kenai project.

Since 1971, the Environmen-tal Protection Agency has sponsored the President's Environ-mental Youth Awards Program. The program has two components: the regional certificate program and the national awards competition. Regional certificates are awarded by each of the 10 EPA regions, and one project from each region is selected for national honors. Region 10 includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Three former winners of the Caring for the Kenai program have been selected in the past four years for the EPA Region 10 national award. This year it was the SoHi team.

The team's project earned top honors in the Caring for the Kenai contest in 1999 for work to expand facilities and restore habitat at Soldotna Creek Park.

The three designed and built riverbank repairs and pedestrian access walkways at the park. They split $1,500 in savings bonds from CFK contest sponsor, Unocal.

The men devoted hundreds of hours to the project. They met with Soldotna city officials to discuss recreational needs, then planned the project with the goal in mind of protecting the riverbank from trampling in a heavily used fishing area.

The three worked throughout the school year on the park project, which began as a community service initiative for Dan Harbison's advanced placement government class. The students pursued restoration, access and revegetation in a popular fishing area along the Kenai River in the city park, adding to walkways already in the area.

Aside from winning the CFK project, they were invited to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony.

Unlike past award ceremonies, the students actually were in the company of President George W. Bush. The president took the day, his 100th day in office, to honor the winners of the regions. No president had attended the ceremony since former President George Bush was in office.

The men said they did not expect to receive the honor, but it was a great experience.

Soderquist, who works as a computer technician for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said they were able to spend a bit more time with Bush because they were the last region to receive an award. They walked with him after the ceremony and spoke with him about the Kenai Peninsula.

"It was neat to have a little time to speak with him, ... both formally and nonformally," Soderquist said. "It was quite the experience. It was a great closure to the project."

Kim, a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., pursuing a biology degree, said the trip was a pleasant surprise.

"The trip to Washington, D.C., was a great experience. We got to meet with our state representatives, the president, not to mention our sponsors," he said.

But the overall goal of the project was to help the Kenai.

"It was important to keep in mind that the most important thing was that everything started from our community. There weren't any plans to go out and win a prize, but rather, just a desire to better our community," Kim said.

"We weren't planning on winning any prizes with our project. We were just completing the requirements for the community service portion of our AP government class. But once we got moving on our project, people suggested that it might be worthy of a prize or two, so we applied."

Merrill Sikorski, creator and coordinator of the CFK contest, said he is proud of the winners. He said the success for the program in past years is just the beginning of his vision.

"My vision is a Caring for America program, if not globally," he said. "Everybody has environmental problems, if you are in Kansas or Alaska."

Sikorski said the project was an example of what could come from the caring for the Kenai.

"They had no idea that that kind of project would lead to meeting the president of the U.S.," he said.

He said while it was an important occurrence in the lives of all the men, Michael Penland, an U.S. Air Force cadet, is especially proud of the picture he has of himself standing next to the president.

"Cadets are just boots, no one stands out, but he has a picture of him and the president," Sikorski said.

He said the trip had its share of excitement.

"Oh, we had fun," he said, adding that he presented the president with a jacket that had a logo designed by Skyview High School art students.

No matter what awards were won, the project proves that one idea can lead anywhere.

Soderquist said after the three finished the last bits of work on the project, he noticed people using the benches and the dock. He said seeing the finished project in use was a great feeling.

"That in itself was enough of a reward," he said.



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