Jamie Infanti, a sophomore at Absegami High School in Galloway Township, is passionate about the environment. Her mother, Mary Crawford, is highly involved in the township's Go Green Galloway initiative, and Infanti has tagged along at events since she was a a toddler.
Last spring, Infanti and a few friends decided to branch out on their own. About a dozen students showed up for the group's first meeting, which was held at the Galloway Starbucks on April 3. On April 22 - Earth Day - the group, called Earth Shepherd, held its first cleanup at the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township.
The members of the group spent their summer assisting Go Green Galloway and organizing street and beach cleanups. Infanti, seeing potential in the group's work, started to think bigger.
"Absegami didn't have an environmental club, so I decided it would be a good idea to start one," Infanti said.
To establish the group, Infanti had to win the approval of the Absegami administration. She was initially rebuffed by funding questions, but she pushed on and was successful.
Earth Shepherd has held biweekly meetings since the beginning of the year, discussing and planning service projects and inviting representatives from environmental organizations to speak.
Infanti was initially unsure if the group would be a success, but her fears proved unfounded, as the group quickly generated a regular membership of about 30.
"We've gotten a lot of new members, and that's the thing that was important," Infanti said. "We were hoping that it wasn't going to be too far out there. We wanted people to respond to it."
Katy Cardwell, Infanti's guidance counselor, serves as faculty adviser to the group. She recalls being shocked and impressed when at the end of the last school year, Infanti told her of the group and her hopes of making it a club.
"They were all freshmen at the time, all finishing their freshman year," Cardwell said. "It's a really, really bright group of kids, really good group of students. Really nice kids."
Kassandra Archer, an Americorps volunteer in the Watershed Ambassador program who works in the area surrounded by the Mullica River, recently visited a meeting to discuss her organization and her work with the students.
Archer was initially met with silence when she asked for questions following her talk but stayed behind for one-on-one, at which point the students opened up.
"They were good," Archer said. "A little bit shy when I was up there, but afterwards a lot of them came up to me and had really, really great questions about my processes and what I do and all of that."
Earth Shepherd recently finished its first recycling drive, collecting more than 100 used flip-flops that were sent off to Trenton-based Terracycle, which "upcycles" plastic items into useful objects like trash bins and park benches.
The group held collections at Absegami as well as Reeds Road and Smithville elementaries, and although the kids were enthusiastic, the high school's response left something to be desired, Infanti said.
The group hopes to make collection drives a recurring event, and will continue to hold periodic cleanups. Next on the agenda is a recycling awareness campaign, Infanti said, and while the response to the group's first effort involving the larger Absegami community may have been tepid, she is confident it will be better in the future.
"We're hoping over the years it'll get bigger," Infanti said. "It's something totally new, and we're hoping to find better ways to improve how we do it."
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