SOS Youth Make Their Lake Tahoe Community Cleaner
As 13-year-old Julie Robles walked from her middle school to the 7-Eleven, she began noticing a serious problem. Empty Slurpee containers, coffee cups, soda cans, straws and candy wrappers were scattered along the sidewalks, walkways and intersections. Her beautiful mountain community of Incline Village, NV nestled along the shore of Lake Tahoe, was becoming a haven for trash.
Julie has spent her life growing up in the small communities of Lake Tahoe. This is her home. She loves the dense forests, snowy peaks, and sparkling waters, but the accumulation of waste was troubling her.
For the last four years, Julie has participated in SOS Outreach. Our life-changing programs combine outdoor exploration, positive adult mentorship, leadership skills and community service to help youth discover joy, feel included, overcome challenges, improve their mental health, and become strong leaders. A big part of our progressive curriculum is our Year 3 Mentor program service project.
Our year three Mentor program participants embark on a leadership-driven service project completely designed by them. With their Mentor groups comprising 4-6 kids, they examine needs in their communities, explore prominent issues they want to address, and develop and outline tangible solutions. These kids are making a very direct difference right where they live.
Julie thought the issue of how to better manage trash in the community was the perfect fit for the service project.
“What we were genuinely trying to do is help the environment, and try to find ideas that would help Tahoe,” shares Julie. “We worked together as a team with our mentors. We all were talking about how we were seeing trash and how we wanted to help. Down by the middle school is where we saw most of the trash. There weren’t any trash cans that were noticeable, and between Chevron and the church there are no trash cans. After people finished their chips, they would just fold up the bag and leave it on the ground. We thought we could fix this.”
The group looked at studies and articles on human behavior and trash. They discovered a story about Walt Disney’s experiment to see how far a Disneyland visitor would walk with trash in their hand before letting it drop to the ground. Presumably, Walt watched the crowds and concluded that, on average, the magic distance is 30 feet. The group incorporated this insight to determine the best locations for trash cans in Incline Village.
According to recent data, the Tahoe Basin receives approximately 24 million visitors annually. That’s a massive influx of people for the community of Incline Village, with a population of roughly 8,000 residents. Limited public trash cans further exacerbate the challenge of proper waste disposal.
“Without a trash can close by, people are often not willing to carry their trash with them for long distances to properly dispose of it,” says Julie. “They choose to litter instead. Having a trash can located close to where people purchase snacks and food makes it easier for people to throw away or recycle their trash.”
After determining the best locations, the team researched which types of trash cans to implement. Tahoe is bear country. The trash cans needed to be secure for wildlife. This helps bears properly hibernate on time, rather than remaining awake into winter attracted by the bounty of human food in the trash.
The kids strongly believed these solutions would help reduce the amount of litter in their community and that Tahoe would be a better place if there were more ways to properly throw away trash.
“After I dive into something, I’ll be really engaged in it and feel like I have a purpose to do something,” shares Julie. “It gave me a purpose to help the community and see what I could do. We worked together as a team. Everybody contributed and everybody voiced what they thought, what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to help.”
With the goal to maintain healthier and stronger wildlife populations, protect water quality in the lake, and prevent the buildup of microplastics in the environment, a dangerous consequence of littering—they set out to address their concerns and present their solutions with the Incline Village General Improvement District (IVGID)—a quasi-public agency chartered to provide water, sewer, trash and recreation services for the unincorporated communities of Incline Village and Crystal Bay, NV. IVGID determines what facilities and services it should offer that will preserve or enhance the general health, safety and welfare of the community.
The team was given three minutes to present their case during the public comment portion of the Board of Trustees Meeting. Each participant contributed equally, taking turns speaking into a mic on public record in front of the elected Board. Julie and her peers were prepared, communicated their point concisely, and put forth clear objectives and solutions. Their presentation was met by a loud round of applause.
“Their concerns struck a chord with me personally,” shares Sara Schmitz, IVGID Board of Trustees Treasurer. “The trash issue is deplorable. People will go watch the sunset at our beautiful beach, get up and leave all their trash behind. They must think the Trash Fairy will come and pick it up.”
Sara had been adamantly trying to address the issue as a private citizen for years, reaching out to schools to incorporate educational programs and working with county leaders.
“I truly believe that we have got to get the youth on board with this, because it’s the youth that have the ability to really make a difference moving forward,” says Sara. “Young kids are our future. And, the youth from SOS Outreach walked in at a perfect time.”
Unbeknown to Julie and the 6 other kids in the group, the county commissioner had recently used discretionary funds to procure new bear-proof trash cans for IVGID to install. Sara reached out to SOS Outreach to recount the best locations for these trash cans using the kids’ research and insight.
“We’re actually going to be installing the trash cans in locations they recommended,” says Sara. “I wanted to reach out to let them know they were listened to. We care about their input and their input is valid. The more we can pull people together, and pull efforts together, the better the community is.”
While Julie was initially a little nervous to speak in front of the IVGID Board, she was elated to learn they listened to her group’s concerns.
“SOS has made me feel more confident by being able to speak out and know that my voice can be heard in my community,” shares Julie. “I’m really proud that our voices were heard. We had a say in what happened—that’s amazing.”