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Burnaby high schooler wins city's youth environmental award

Grade 12 Burnaby Mountain Secondary student Casey Lo was acknowledged at council for her environmental stewardship and volunteering on garden programs in the school district.

Grade 12 Burnaby Mountain Secondary student Casey Lo has been gardening since she can remember.

After years volunteering with a school garden club, and taking her knowledge into her school, she’s won the city’s youth environmental award lauding her for her environmental stewardship. Mayor Mike Hurley presented the award at council on June 20.

Burnaby’s environmental awards recognize large-scale, long-term commitments to a cause that has broad community impact.

The award was given to Casey based on her involvement in the Forest Grove Garden Club and her efforts in revitalizing Burnaby Mountain Secondary’s indoor greenhouse.

She graduated just last month from Mountain, where she left her mark in the form of a revitalized indoor greenhouse.

The Forest Grove Garden Club

Casey has been a part of the garden club at Forest Grove Elementary School since she was about six years old – she says it’s been as long as she can remember.

“It’s kind of changed my life because it got me interested in the environment and gardening and being outside, and it really nurtured my love of nature and plants,” she said.

The garden club works like a seed-to-table program: the group plants food staples like garlic, herbs, lettuces, radishes and carrots, and uses the plants in cooking classes. The year culminates in a big feast.

Barb Koyanagi, founder and executive director of the Burnaby-based non-profit Sprouting Chefs, runs the Forest Grove garden program and has known Casey since she started.

Koyanagi said the early memory she has of Casey is from when she was in about Grade 1.

“[There was] us transplanting plants with a big pile of soil, and she’s just wearing an Easter white dress and white tights doing this work with me – that was Casey,” Koyanagi said.

“If it was raining at garden club and there were puddles, she would be in them.”

Koyanagi used to call Casey “carrot girl” because she loved pulling the veggies up from the soil.

Now Casey is a youth leader and garden educator for the club. Koyanagi calls her part of the team of “environ-mentors.”

“She probably knows just as much about gardening as I do now,” Koyanagi said.

Seeing opportunities for growth

At Mountain, Casey realized the school’s indoor greenhouse had plenty of equipment that wasn’t being used. The outdoor garden bins hadn’t been used either.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, what if I kind of revitalize this and reuse the space,’” she said.

With a $1,000 grant from Youth to Sea by Ocean Wise, a program Casey was also involved with, she bought the plants and got the project started.

Students at Forest Grove and Edmonds elementary schools planted the seeds. Over the winter and early spring, Casey took the seedlings to the greenhouse at Burnaby Mountain Secondary to be cared for by the high schoolers. They planted tomatoes, cucumbers, marigolds, nasturtiums and more.

The school’s outdoor garden planters also needed some work. Many schools throughout Burnaby have the large metal bins, like horse troughs, which are popular with gardeners.

But the planters are hard for schools to take care of over the summer months when classes aren’t in session. The metal bins are easy for plants to dry up in and turn to weeds.

Casey set out to develop a self-watering system.

She and a group of students created a wicking system that stores water, with specialized drainage compartments at the bottom, separated from the plants by landscaping fabric.

The water would be soaked up through the soil, so the plants have access to water, even if they’re not consistently watered.

The students have planted species native to the West Coast, including alpine strawberries, bergamot and licorice mint Agastache.

If the experiment works, the self-watering system could be used in schools across Burnaby.

“A rare passion”

Koyanagi said it takes a student like Casey, one with “a rare passion,” to make a project like this happen.

“I think having someone like her, with the strong responsibility piece and her also being able to get other kids to join her, made the difference,” Koyanagi said.

She described Casey as “extremely curious.”

“When she’s interested in something, she will ask … the right questions to keep her inspired, so she’s inspirational, and she’s an inspired person.”

Koyanagi said when Casey couldn’t attend the garden club’s end-of-year feast, she made all the kids she worked with cookies.

Casey said learning about the environment is a huge part of her life.

“I’ve grown up in an area called Forest Grove, I live in a forest, so it’s always been a super big part of my life,” she said.

“Being next to the pipeline, also, I’ve seen a lot of my backyard … torn up over the years and removed for the pipeline,” she said.

“Conservation is a huge part of what I think I want to go into, because there’s just so much beauty in our forests, and there’s so many reasons why we need to protect them.”

In the fall, Casey will attend UBC, and she’s likely headed towards the environmental sciences, but she’s keeping her options open.

She’ll also be on the UBC Thunderbirds varsity softball team – in addition to her environmental work, she’s played softball since she was 11.