Students to Receive the President’s Environmental Youth Award for Their Efforts to Protect Humpback Whales

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has selected the 2017-18 fifth grade class at Mount Madonna School (MMS) in Watsonville to receive the President’s Environmental Youth Award (PEYA) for their work to fight environmental threats faced by humpback whales. The awards are presented each year to exceptional students and teachers who demonstrate creativity, innovation, and leadership to address difficult environmental challenges.

“We’re proud to honor this special group of young leaders at Mount Madonna School who are promoting whale conservation,” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Mike Stoker. “These students are making a real difference by engaging their community, reducing plastic pollution, and teaching other students the importance of environmental stewardship. This class is an inspiring example of what’s possible when young students create solutions through passion and dedication.”

Students will be honored by EPA representatives in a ceremony at Mount Madonna School at 9:30am on May 30. The class has also been invited to Washington, D.C. on July 25 for a national ceremony recognizing all of the 2018 PEYA awardees.

The fifth graders (now sixth graders) at Mount Madonna won the President’s Environmental Youth Award for their year-long environmental education and stewardship campaign titled “Whalemanji: Welcome to the Ocean, an Environmental Project to Help Protect the Humpback Whale.”

Over the 2017-18 school year the students created an educational movie on the environmental hazards faced by humpback whales; wrote letters to elected representatives and the ambassador of Costa Rica; removed trash from local beaches, and visited the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration’s Sanctuary Exploration Center in Santa Cruz.

“We put a lot of effort into this project,” commented participating student Colby Culbertson. “It is inspiring to be recognized by the president and I think that this recognition will help the cause even more.”

“From writing letters and speaking up for what you think needs to change I learned that if you actually try to help what you think is right, people will notice you and stand up with you,” wrote a classmate, reflecting on the project.

“In fifth grade, we set a goal and made a plan to help humpback whales,” shared another classmate. “Our goal was to help reduce the threats to these whales and to teach the public to help as well, so that they could teach other people and help start a positive chain reaction.”

The students worked in conjunction with several environmental nonprofit organizations, including Marine Life Studies, to host an educational assembly about whales of the Monterey Bay and create conservation games for the WhaleFest event in Monterey; The Last Plastic Straw, to encourage local restaurants to reduce their use of plastic straws by using a compostable alternative; and with Centro de Investigacion de Cetaceos (CEIC) de Costa Rica, where they encouraged the protection of the breeding and birthing ground of the whale at Golfo Dulce, and raised funds to support a “buddies” trip where some of the students worked with CEIC in research and public education.

“After seeing the documentaries and our beaches, I realized how much plastic there really is in our oceans,” commented student Kinsey Don Carlos. “It inspired me to help reduce the use of plastic and try and help save humpback whales and other animals threatened by plastic. Being recognized with this award is amazing. It shows how all of our hard work has paid off and that we really can make a difference.”

“We had a lasting impact in our community,” said Culbertson. “One example is that we got a local restaurant to include sustainable metal condiment cups, and replace the plastic disposable cups, for customers eating in their restaurant.”

In recognition of their efforts and project reach, in 2018 the students were invited to attend WE Day in Los Angeles; presented their work at the local Earth Day festival; and presented at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s World Ocean Day celebration and Plastic Pollution Summit.

Additionally, students discovered in their research that coastal waters were potentially being opened up to oil and gas exploration by the Department of the Interior. This would impact the whales all along the Pacific Coast and Atlantic Coast. Students engaged in civic action by creating and distributing flyers, emails and creation of a public service announcement (PSA) which was shared on social media to encourage the public to comment during the open public comment period about the need to protect our coastlines from new oil and gas exploration.

“When we learned that our coastline could be opened up to oil drilling we knew we had to do something to help protect the ocean for ourselves and the whales,” explained a student in a written reflection. “We went to work right away in different groups to get as many people as we could to comment during the open period so that we could protect the whales and our ocean. I was surprised at how many flyers we gave out and how many people viewed and shared our PSA video. I think we really got people to comment and help us protect the ocean.”

“I cannot tell you how special it is to me that their hard work is being honored at a national level,” commented fifth grade teacher and project mentor Jessica Cambell. “They were an amazing class and passionate about the whale and making a difference.

“My students continually inspire me as they find their voice to create positive change within the world,” she continued. “These kids are so dedicated to this cause and empowered as citizens. Once they realized that there was something they could do, they organized themselves to create change. These children believed they could change the world for the better and they did exactly that; I simply showed them I believed in them and helped them along. This national award is a great honor as it is recognition of their hard work, dedication, civic action and stewardship towards preserving our environment for the future generations.”

This is the third time Mount Madonna School fifth grade students have received this national recognition. In 2017, students were awarded a PEYA for their 2015-16 work protect Western Snowy Plovers; and in 2015, students learned they were awarded the PEYA for their 2013-14 work to protect endangered sea turtles.

“To hear that we will be recognized and our project acknowledged gives me even more of a driving force to continue to push for change,” commented student Emi Lord. “And to know that people hear us and are also trying to do what they can, really makes me feel like I can make a difference. To see such amazing, beautiful animals threatened by something they have absolutely no control over is a challenging and sad thing. We all live together on this Earth and that means being the voice for others.”


ContactL: Leigh Ann Clifton, Director of Marketing & Communications,

Established in 1971, the President’s Environmental Youth Award promotes awareness of our nation’s natural resources and encourages positive community involvement. Focused on environmental stewardship, one outstanding project from each of EPA’s ten regions is selected for national recognition. Projects are developed by young individuals, K-12 school classes, and youth organizations. Learn more at:  

 Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979. 

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