By Vindri Gajadhar
Growing up, I took it for granted that it was everyone’s responsibility to take care of the environment. It made sense to me that if humans want to live in a world that has fresh air, clean water, more natural landscapes, resources for the future, and opportunities to truly appreciate the outdoors and revel in God’s creation, we all have to do our part to care for the environments in which we live.
I am Canadian by birth and lived in Toronto until I was 27. I grew up in a suburb called Etobicoke. In my community, and especially in my household, I was encouraged to be less wasteful and more conscious of the waste I generated. Growing up in an environmentally conscious culture instilled in me a deep respect and desire to care for the natural world.
When I moved to Tampa, Florida, in 2000, I experienced a culture shock of sorts. One of the things that immediately stunned me was the amount of trash people threw away – even with garbage pick-up twice a week! Back in Etobicoke, we threw away very little. In my family, when we collected the household trash for pick-up twice per month, we usually had no more than one small grocery bag of waste. We didn’t even use the typical trash bags that are sold at retailers for that purpose. We re-purposed plastic grocery bags instead. There was never much to throw away because we recycled, re-purposed things that could have otherwise been tossed in the garbage, composted in our backyard garden and burned some paper products in our wood-burning stove during the winter. We rarely ate packaged, canned or otherwise processed foods.
This is the world I grew up in; it was all I knew. It was so normal and so easy to do. To say that I was shocked at what Americans were throwing away is an understatement. I was deeply saddened. There was no composting. There was no recycling. Everything either went to the landfill or was incinerated. I felt like my new home was really lagging in the department of environmental stewardship.
As the years passed, recycling arrived in my Tampa suburb. I was quite excited and felt hopeful for the future. Action to protect our resources and environment was slow in coming, but at least it was becoming a priority.
In 2008, my first year at Jesuit High School of Tampa, I taught a unit in Global Studies on the topic of the environment, and a pair of students were motivated to take action on environmental stewardship. Within that school year, Jesuit’s Environmental Club was off the ground, and I had a crew of devoted students.
The club partnered with a community organization called Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful. They were instrumental in teaching and guiding us in our new endeavor. We started with installing a paper recycling program on campus. Every week, the students in the club collected (from all over the campus) recyclable paper products. They did this for no other reason than to care for creation. There were no community service hours to be earned. It was a selfless commitment.
Now, 13 years later, the Jesuit Environmental Club is one of the most active clubs on campus. We have 60 members this year and a dedicated student executive team that manages on-campus recycling without adult assistance. Teachers and students would see these club members quietly going about their business after school and began to ask, “When will the Environmental Club start recycling cans and plastic bottles?”
It was encouraging to see interest in recycling grow. It was a ground-up expansion. In 2019, the club expanded the on-campus recycling program to include plastic and can recycling. Currently, recyclables are collected in the cafeteria and in certain outdoor areas of campus, but interest is growing in bringing receptacles to every classroom and office. We are definitely seeing a growth in environmental awareness. Jesuit Tampa also made the move in 2019 to add water bottle refilling stations around campus. Now, students can bring their own water bottles and refill them throughout the day instead of buying single-use drinks. It’s beautiful to see how the daily actions of a few devoted individuals can become contagious.
The Jesuit Environmental Club’s interests are not limited to caring for creation on campus. Members participate in many community-based environmental activities such as coastal cleanups, tree planting, park cleanups, gardening, community beautification projects, and the rehabilitation of Tampa Bay’s shoreline and water quality through the creation of oyster shell bars.
A new project that we are excited to try involves placing stickers on storm drains to remind people to protect our waterways. The club is also considering adopting a park or road to take care of permanently.
My role over the years has been to guide the students and help them organize meetings and events. Up until this year I have supervised and participated in all weekend activities with my students. I have always brought my husband and children along to the events, and I encourage the students to bring their families and friends. We want others to join in and realize how easy and how enjoyable it is to take care of the environmental health of our communities.
I love to hear the students talk after a community-based event because they are so pumped up and ready for another one. I point out to them that even picking up trash can be fun when you have like-minded people to work with. They always agree.
I am blessed that there is an opportunity to pursue my passion for environmental stewardship at Jesuit Tampa. What’s even more rewarding, though, is watching others in both my school community and my wider Tampa Bay community become more motivated to do their part in caring for creation.
I have experienced firsthand the positive changes that can happen when environmentally inspired people are impelled to action. What started with the interest of just two students has blossomed into a major institution at our school. The younger generation is growing up in a world where recycling, waste reduction and resource preservation are a fact of life.
I feel like I have come full circle. My own children and my students know the importance of caring for creation, like I did as a child. The seeds of environmental consciousness have been planted in them, and because of this, our future will be brighter and greener.
Vindri Gajadhar is a social studies teacher and the Environmental Club moderator at Jesuit High School of Tampa.