Two years ago, Paul Harris, an architect for the United States Department of the Interior, was tasked to review the recycling program at his Herndon office and was dismayed by what he saw.
With increasing consolidation in the recycling industry, there was less attention being paid to individual management of material and a growing amount of service fees, he said. It was then that he took to his computer, searching for an alternative service provider when he stumbled upon a Herndon High School organization of students dedicated to promoting good environmental practices, including recycling.
"I did some research and I found SAGA [Students Against Global Abuse] and got interested by what they had to offer and got into contact with them," Harris said. "I pitched the idea to my boss … and I knew after the first meeting with them that I wanted to make this work."
The student-run group, headed by Herndon High School Spanish teacher and SAGA founder Gary Gepford, moved in to manage the recycling program for the departmental office, part of a branch of government tasked with preserving the country’s parks and wildlife. They did such a good job that less than two years later the group was pegged to receive the national Environmental Achievement Award for their efforts, which will be presented to the group at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington D.C. later this month.
"I was so impressed with all the kids who came out there, just dedicated to getting the job done," said Harris, who has since been transferred from the Herndon office. "This was after school, they were volunteering their time … these kids seemed to have just a genuine desire to do this."
MANAGING RECYCLING programs and working to assist the environment is hardly new to SAGA. The group was started by Gepford and Herndon High School students in 1989.
"As a teacher, I just got tired of seeing this," said Gepford, holding up a recycling bin filled with used white office paper, "in this," he said, switching quickly to a regular waste basket. "There was just so much waste, and we didn’t even know how to address this in 1989."
After organizing, SAGA students and teachers joined together to create the school’s first organized recycling program, informing students of the benefits of recycling and encouraging participation, according to Gepford. The program was a major success, he said.
In time, the group grew. As the organization took on the task of managing more recycling programs for a wide variety of different organizations in the region, it became more than just a school group, according to Gepford.
"SAGA is not a high school project, this is a community project," he said. "We’re out there with the people, talking to them every day."
About 18 years later, the group of about 20 students manages the recycling programs of 150 area organizations, including several Loudoun County Public Schools and local churches and libraries, according to Gepford. He estimated that SAGA handles the recycling needs of about 25,000 people and collects approximately 10 tons of white office paper for recycling each year.
With advertising and education campaigns about the ways to recycle and its environmental benefits in the buildings that it manages and a volunteer bi-weekly pick-up and organizational program, the group has attracted more than just the attention of the Department of the Interior. SAGA has also received awards and recognition in previous years from Fairfax County’s Department of Waste Management, the American Forest & Paper Association and the state of Virginia, amongst others.
AND WHILE ALL the work was done with protecting and conserving the environment primarily in mind, the recycling brought in significant funds that the group could use to further its goals, Gepford said. As a result, SAGA has been able to offer its student volunteers college scholarships, as well as sponsor community beautification projects and school improvements. Since its inception, the group has raised more than $300,000, according to Gepford.
"I’m very proud and almost honored … to have such a phenomenal program here led by such phenomenal teacher leaders," said Frances Ivey, principal of Herndon High School. "This is an example of what can happen when a school based level program can expand to have such an impact in not just the community but also the world."
While the lure of helping the environment is not one of the first reasons often mentioned by SAGA students for joining, it is that belief that the group can have a positive impact on the environment and others that has kept them going.
"At first I was just like, ‘wow this is a good way to get money for a scholarship, wow, yeah I can do this,’" said Herndon High School senior Sajeda Hassan. "But as I got involved in it, I realized that it really was working and I really felt like I was helping out and making a difference."
What started out as a social endeavor for junior Naomi Morris eventually led to a commitment and a dedication to serving the environment.
"I honestly just started because of my friends, but the more I came, the more I began to enjoy everything I’m doing," Morris said. "It’s been a great experience and one where you really feel like you’re helping out."
GEPFORD SAID he doesn’t see much further growth coming from Herndon’s SAGA, but was hoping to see similar organizations just like the homegrown group begin to take form in other areas. He said that he receives requests from community and school-based groups throughout the nation on a weekly basis, requesting helping in starting a similar environmental group.
"I think the more people we have out there who spread the word, the better," Gepford said. "The environment is important … things like global warming, they will affect everyone, it doesn’t matter if you’re a republican a democrat, green, black, blue, whatever."
For Harris, there is a quiet dignity in the work of SAGA, and one that he feels can have at least the same reverberations for the community in the long run than other school activities.
"These kids, they’re not the football stars or the basketball stars, but they care and they’re out there working hard all the time," Harris said. "Hopefully this award will give them something to add to their trophy case."