Air Date: Week of August 27, 1993
Mary Jo Draper of member station KCUR reports on a group of young environmental activists in urban St. Louis. The Dolphin Defenders devote a lot of time to making the city around them a better place to live, from recycling old tires to turning an empty lot into a wildlife habitat. But the group also demonstrates their larger concern for the earth by donating money to save old growth forests.
NUNLEY: Asphalt and concrete . . . steel bars and vacant lots . . . the inner city is hardly a place for young kids to get in touch with nature. That's why the staff at one big environmental group in Washington is continually astonished when, every six months or so, an envelope arrives postmarked "St. Louis," containing a check for a couple of hundred dollars for its campaign to save old-growth forests. The check comes from a group of kids, all between nine and twelve years old, which calls itself the "Dolphin Defenders. " Mary Jo Draper of member station KCUR has this report on a group which is confounding the assumptions of everyone - from their state's governor to their own parents.
DRAPER: The Dolphin Defenders meet on a busy street in a St. Louis neighborhood, where older houses are nestled among gas stations, vacant lots, and stores protected by security screens. In their one-room headquarters in a church building, relics of local wildlife, such as a snakeskin and a bird's wing, are on display. The pegboard walls are jam-packed with framed newspaper clippings, posters and plaques.
MONTGOMERY: This is where all of our awards that we've got through the years, citations and different things like that.
DRAPER: Since they were nine, teenagers Barbara Montgomery and Nakia Jones have come to this room for meetings of the Dolphin Defenders.
JONES: We've achieved a lot, like we went to Jefferson City for, um, what was that? We got a plaque from Governor Ashcroft.
DRAPER: Many of the awards are for projects like removing trash from a vacant lot, cleaning up a lake, and planting trees. Some of these projects help the group earn money. In the last year, the Dolphin Defenders have collected several thousand pounds of aluminum and glass, which they sold to recycling centers. The kids also make money by selling what they call Dolphin Defender Stock. Stockholders become lifetime members of the Dolphin Defenders, and can vote once a year on what projects the group should support. Barbara Montgomery says the group sometimes uses the money it has made from cleaning up the environment to pay for other projects, like hauling away old tires that can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
MONTGOMERY: We have to pay to recycle the tires. They don't pay us to recycle the tires. It costs a dollar per tire, and once we recycled 250 tires, so we had to give them $250 just to recycle those tires.
DRAPER: The group also gives money to causes outside its St. Louis neighborhood. For instance, members say as they've learned about the environment, they've begun to feel that old-growth forests in the northwest United States are just as important as vacant lots in St. Louis. And they've sent money to the Wilderness Society in Washington to help with its forest project.
MONTGOMERY: We helped out the ancient forests, we are trying to help the ancient forests, trying to help them not cut it down, 'cause it gives us things that we need like medicine and different things like that.
DRAPER: It might seem strange that an environmental group in St. Louis calls itself the Dolphin Defenders. The nine-to-twelve-year-old members chose the name themselves, in part because they care about dolphins, but also because they think dolphins have admirable qualities like loyalty, intelligence, and non-violence, which the kids hope to emulate.
(Sound of Defenders planting trees: "Don't kill the plant, did you loosen up the roots?" "Uh-huh . . ." fade under)
DRAPER: This summer, the Dolphin Defenders are building a wildlife habitat in a vacant lot behind their headquarters. They've planted yellow marigolds and purple pansies in the hard clay where an abandoned house stood for years. The group put in trash cans a few years ago. Their leader, Neil Andre, considers it a big success that the people who spend the night drinking here now throw their bottles in the can instead of on the ground. Andre has worked with kids at a neighborhood center of the United Church for 17 years. The center programs focus on the needs of the neighborhood, fighting poverty and drugs. But Andre also has a personal passion - the environment, in both the St. Louis neighborhood and across the country.
ANDRE: Before I started the Dolphin Defenders, I was a member of, well, at least over 20 different national environmental organizations. But I kept looking for some kind of change and I didn't see the changes coming, you know.
DRAPER: Andre began to think there might be a new way to address environmental problems, by passing on his love for the earth to the kids he worked with. He also wanted to give the children some concrete ways to address problems.
ANDRE: A lot of people were skeptical in the beginning. A lot of people said inner-city kids couldn't give because they hadn't been given to enough.
DRAPER: Many of those skeptics have been amazed to see the kids donate their energy, their Saturdays, and sometimes even their birthday money to environmental causes. Barbara Montgomery's mother, Denise Bloodsole, says her daughter changed when she joined the group.
BLOODSOLE: When she first started going out picking up cans, I said, is that fun? And she goes, oh, but you don't know the purpose of it. And so each Saturday she got, you know, just fired up looking for, each Friday she looked forward to Saturdays and I realized that it made a great difference to her.
DRAPER: Bloodsole says being the mother of a Dolphin Defender has made her more aware of issues like recycling. As Dolphin Defenders outgrow the program, they take its messages with them. 21-year-old Lester Thomas was an original member of the program. He's in college now. When he finishes, he hopes to start a group of his own like the Dolphin Defenders. Thomas believes that learning to care about the earth can help kids in countless ways.
THOMAS: We want them just to learn, learn about something different other than guns and drugs and everything. There's more to the world than that. All of them, they have come, stayed and they've learned and they've come out better. I feel I've come out a better person.
DRAPER: The Dolphin Defenders now have grown from one chapter to two, with about 55 members. They'll probably keep growing. Already, Barbara Montgomery's five-year-old brother is asking when he can join. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Jo Draper in St. Louis.
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