11-year-old wraps up Climate Idols Challenge

Lee holds the eggs he gathered from the chickens the family started raising for the first time last spring. Photo Credit: Claire Farmer-Lies Lee Kohlin is 11 years old. He graduated from Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary in West Duluth, Minn. last year and has since moved on to Morgan Park Middle School. Lee is part of a new generation of young people who grow up with a consciousness toward land stewardship.

"At Stowe, we would compost our food. At Morgan Park, we just throw it all in the garbage. I don't like that," said Lee.

Stowe is an environmental magnet school, the curriculum is centered around the idea of sustainable practices and land stewardship. Aside from using worms to compost leftover food, the school also participates in a recycling program and has an arboretum on campus.

"I was a lunch cadet," said Lee. "We take the food and separate meat and we'd put milk, meat, and vegetables and fruit in bins. We would take some of the food and put it into our worm shed."

Last April we met Lee, his older bother Matt, his father Pat, and his mother Tari as they started the second phase of the Climate Idols Challenge, transportation. Half of a year later, they are coming to the end of the challenge with the last of the four phases.

The year-long event is sponsored by Sister Cities International and the Northern Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Eight families from Duluth and Thunder Bay, Ontario were given the responsibility to reduce their environmental impact by competing against each other in a series of challenges. They ranged from attending events in their communities to reducing their energy bills. The phases of the challenge are energy, transportation, food, and lifestyle.

Lee plays basketball and is involved in other activities at school like game club, where he meets with other students after school to play chess and quiz games. He has a two-wheeled skateboard called a Ripstick that he likes to use in his free time.

"I usually make ramps from spare wood that we have,” said Lee. “With my family, we go camping a lot. We ski together sometimes and snowboard. I like winter sports.”

From left: Lee Kohlin, Tari Rayala, Pat Kohlin and Matt Kohlin before heading off to complete the transportation stage in the Climate Idol Challenge. Photo Credit: Scott Schmidley

Lee doesn't help with meals or grocery shopping, but does other chores around the house, including taking care of the chickens the family started raising for the first time last spring.

"We have to let the chickens out," he said. "They poop everywhere, so there's a lot of stuff all over the grass. We give some eggs to our neighbors because they like to roam around in their yard."

Lee said that he has been getting some attention since his family started the Climate Idols challenge.

"The first time I got interviewed, I didn't say much…I just stayed there," he said. "When they interview, they can edit, so it's not that scary. I don't really mind people interviewing me. My friends aren't that interested, but they do sometimes say that they see me on TV, and then we can get into a conversation."

Overall, he said that he has enjoyed participating in the challenges with his family.

"It's pretty fun though, going to meetings and eating food are my favorite parts. It hasn't been hard, except biking to my friends house which is about 3 miles away," Lee said.

Lee and his brother help keep the family on track for the challenge.

"Any time anybody uses a light that isn't in the correct fixture, they say, 'Well aren't you gonna put the right bulb in? How come were not walking? Why are we driving?'" said Pat, the boys’ father.

According to Pat, attitudes about sustainable practices have changed since he was younger.

"When I was Lee's age, there was no such thing as recycling. Everything went into the garbage,” said Pat. “There was really no composting. You would see it on occasion, but I would think, 'What is this? Why would eggshells be in that person's garden?' It didn't make any sense to me.

"Matt and Lee are the next generation,” he continued. “We probably haven't even thought of the stuff they'll be doing with sustainability. They have some huge battles coming up. I think their choices are going to be tougher than the ones we have now.”

Lee and Pat have enjoyed talking to other other families in Duluth who are participating in the initiative. At one event, Lee and his family had a table set up so they could talk to people in the community about the challenge.

"These programs should exist just to get the word out, to hopefully reach different demographics. A lot of times, you just have a bunch of people talking to like minded people and nothing really happens with that," said Pat. "Just getting the word out to all the different social spheres is important. And I think with climate idols, that was their best way of doing it," said Pat.

Lee agrees.

"That's what we want people to do, so they'll tell their friends and family how to conserve,” said Lee. “And then they'll tell more and more people and we will keep doing healthy things. Hopefully, a lot of people will be doing things that are good for the environment.”

The last phase of the challenge involves lifestyle changes. The families are required to consume less, eating at home rather than going out, choosing to spend money only on necessary food and medical items. They are also challenged to buy used items and to participate in activities in the community that do not require participants to drive, but to bike, hike, and visit local monuments and museums.

"We stay in the area a lot, we do a lot of paddling and biking. So our lifestyle is already kind of non-consumptive as far as our recreation goes," said Pat.

Pat said that as the challenge comes to an end, he and his wife will be totaling the results of their work over the last year and getting ready to see new challengers participate.

"We still have to definitely do the paperwork, that's required of us. We've been keeping track of our gas usage, our home energy usage. I'm sure there will be exit interviews. Then, we've supposed to compare our point totals to the families in Thunder Bay, and I think it will be done."

Lee plans to take what he has learned from the challenge, his parents, and his schooling to continue having conversations with people about sustainability. He said that he will continue to buy energy efficient light bulbs and organic foods when he gets older.

"I want to live in a green and healthy environment with the things we need, but without all of the bad things that we do to get them," said Lee.

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