A typical Staples absence note says, “He was at the doctor’s.”
Brian Hershey’s says, “He was at the Arctic Circle.”
If anything merits an excused absence, his does.
Brian is a go-getter. He’s president of the Geography Club for good reason: Still a high school junior, he’s already visited 50 countries.
He plays alto sax in the jazz band and pit orchestra.
He spent last summer in Japan, as an exchange student.
He loves science. So it was no surprise that last spring he entered an international contest run by Polar Bears International aimed at educating teenagers about climate change.
Nor was it surprise that — after writing an essay, and undergoing interviews — Brian was one of 18 winners.
Which is how, earlier this month, he traveled to Churchill, Manitoba — a small town on Hudson Bay — to meet with scientists, study polar bears, and figure out how to stop the world from falling apart.
Brian met incredible people. Meeting other teenagers was as intriguing as interacting with climate change experts and park rangers. Most of the teenagers won contests co-sponsored by zoos (Brian’s was the only one sponsored by an energy company — Gault). Their perspectives broadened his own.
He spent time with Inuit trappers. One woman had been hired at age 7 to guide white hunters. At 9 she traveled 50 kilometers, spending 20 days trapping, then hauling furs back to Churchill.
“I figured these trappers would just kill animals,” Brian says. “But their lives depend on animals. They really understand the importance of conservation.”
But his encounters with a few dozen polar bears — some as close as 2 feet away — were truly amazing.
A buggy brought the group to a research station in the middle of the tundra.
“We were at the mouth of the Churchill River, where fresh and saltwater mix,” Brian explains.
“The bears hadn’t eaten in 4 months. They were starving, waiting for the ice to form, so they could hunt and eat seals.
“The water wasn’t frozen — but it should have been. Looking in the eyes of those awesome predators was an incredible experience.”
Brian returned to Westport — via prop plane to Winnipeg — motivated to find solutions to climate change. He and his new friends had agreed to try to get major businesses or organizations wherever they lived — Australia, the UK, wherever — to reduce their carbon footprint by 5% in 1 year.
Brian immediately approached Staples principal John Dodig to discuss “realistic, applicable ideas.”
One was to start using thin, recyclable paper — like the type Brian saw in Japan — for the many handouts teachers distribute.
Another suggestion: designate some junior parking spots (a coveted commodity) for students who recycle the most.
Brian is determined to educate as many people as possible — of all ages — about the importance of environmental awareness.
“Climate change,” he notes, is a “misnomer. Climate is dynamic — it’s always changing. The question is whether people believe human beings are now contributing to the change.
“I think we are. And I want to talk about it.”
His message — to his friends, teachers, and hopefully the nation — is both personal and universal.
“Why should people in the slums of India, or Brazilian favelas, care about polar bears?
“You have to look at the global picture — at weather, ocean salinity, fishing, trade, everything.
“I have friends all around the world. And I’m going to use all my contacts, everyone I know and everything I learned, to try to spread awareness as much and as far as I can.”