Sam Doepker, a seventh-grade student at Washington Middle School, admits she hasn’t been very knowledgeable about environmental causes up to this point, but after noticing the amount of trash along the road in some places, she was motivated to get involved.

She joined WMS’s environmental club, which takes lessons beyond the classroom to the creeks, rivers and landscapes where lessons can go from being theoretical to hands-on.

“I live by a big highway, so I see a lot of trash. I think it’s kind of gross, and I think we should do something about it,” said Doepker, standing on the banks of the creek behind Washington Middle School with a shovel in her hands.

She and her classmates were digging up some of the invasive bush honeysuckle shrubs, while other students went down into the creek bed to pick up trash. It happened to be Doepker’s 12th birthday, and she was happy to be spending it with friends making her corner of Washington a little bit better.

Several other students in “E club” were new to this kind of work too, but like Doepker, they found it both fun and rewarding.

“I do a lot of after-school stuff, like track and sports, and it’s nice to do something different that helps the world,” said Mia Reed, noting that she joined E club because friends convinced her it would be fun.

Madi Ridder, who was in E club last year when students participated in a trash cleanup at the riverfront, said doing the same thing behind her school is far more meaningful.

“This is definitely closer to home for us. There (at the riverfront), it felt like if we didn’t help clean up, someone else would. But here (at WMS), who else is going to do it?” Ridder asked.

Josie Collier, who was one of the E club students assigned to trash duty, was surprised at how much litter she found in the creek and along the banks.

“It’s kind of upsetting,” said Collier, holding a half-full bag of trash that she had collected in just 30 minutes.

Most of the trash they were finding were Styrofoam items, like cups and plates.

“You don’t see (the trash) at first, but once you get down there and begin looking, there’s so much of it,” Collier said. “It makes me wonder how much trash there is around us every day and we just don’t notice.”

‘Helping the Environment I Care About’

Around two dozen students are in the WMS E club, and about 18 of them are truly active, meaning they attend meetings, work on projects and come to events, said Stefanie Virgen, who teaches English and gifted classes at WMS and is in her first year as adviser for E club.

Meetings are held at least once a month, sometimes twice, although Virgen meets with the E club leadership team more often. There are four subcommittees for outreach, community involvement, public relations and fundraising.

One of the students, Leo Bergin, is in the process of designing a website for the club.

The E club students have different likes and dislikes, but they are of one mind when it comes to the environment, and they all seem to have joined E club for the same reason — to protect it.

“I’ve grown up hunting and fishing, so it’s a way to be out helping the environment I care about,” said Kaleb Burr.

“I really wanted to help our community as a whole and help preserve it for people in the future, and I wanted to learn how to help the earth, because I love being outside,” said Eden Gruchala.

Jack Schantz said he likes being in E club “because it’s a way I can be with other people that like what I like and I can help the environment while being in school.”

For Abby Raeker, she joined E club “hoping to gain information about the environment and experience with it” while “meeting other people who want to help preserve it.

“My parents both work in this area, so they taught me to love the environment,” said Raeker.

Colin Deasy, who came to E club with little outdoor and environmental experience, said he’s already learned a lot.

Leo Bergin agreed.

“It’s fun that we get a chance to help the environment rather than watching it deteriorate. I like that we can do that with our friends,” said Bergin.

Harsh Patel said the information and techniques they are learning in E club are things they can take beyond the school property and do on their own at home or other parts of the community.

Camping, Planting, More

E club students have a variety of other service and awareness projects planned.

In a couple of weeks, they will be working at the Washington River Festival and Clean Up, helping to clean up trash and other odd jobs.

In late April, E club students and their families will go on a camping trip along the Meramec River. They’ll hear from a former Department of Natural Resources naturalist and a current Missouri Department of Conservation forester, who are parents of an E club student.

In May, E club members will add native plantings to the school campus.

The projects the club takes on are directly related to the interests of the students, said Virgen, who wants the kids to take as much ownership of the club as possible.

“Individually, students’ interests are specific to their own experiences,” said Virgen. “One of my members who loves fishing feels passionately about how fish are caught and how the waterways are protected to maximize healthy marine life. Another of my members worries about how litter impacts wildlife — for instance, that the plastic rings on top of a six-pack of soda are restricting growth in various animals — and came up with a leadership project idea in one of my other classes focusing on this issue.”

Environmental problems created by invasive bush honeysuckle weren’t something many of the students knew much about before Virgen explained it to them, but they quickly decided they wanted to do something about it.

“Most of them were pretty surprised when we started discussing the pitfalls of allowing invasive species like bush honeysuckle to proliferate, how they choke out native species, and how they affect wildlife,” said Virgen.

“For instance, I talked to them about how the berries are kind of like bird cotton candy, with little nutritional value, and that just like the kiddos would never dream of running a marathon after eating a handful of Skittles, the birds’ migration and travel can be affected by poor nutrition as well. The light bulbs started going off,” she said.

Environmental Role Model

Virgen, who grew up as a lifelong nature lover, is a passionate environmental role model for the E club students. Back when she was a student at WHS, she was part of the ecology club and since she began teaching, Virgen has included ecology-based units in all of her classes.

“I grew up traipsing through Franklin and Crawford county forests, learning to garden alongside my parents, who taught me great respect for the land, fishing in many Missouri streams and lakes, kayaking or canoeing, and so on,” said Virgen. “My favorite ‘vacations’ were always camping out in the middle of nowhere along a Missouri creek, fishing for whatever would bite. If I needed to relax in high school, I drove out to my ‘secret spot’ that I hiked to in the woods.”

Digging Versus Cutting

The best way to remove bush honeysuckle in springtime is to dig it up. In the fall, it’s OK to cut the stems and apply a chemical that will kill the roots, but that won’t work in spring.

That’s because the chemical application won’t be absorbed enough to work in spring, said Virgen. And cutting the stems without the chemical application actually makes the root system stronger, she noted.

Mike Smith, a fellow WMS teacher and local environmentalist who has worked on numerous bush honeysuckle removal efforts around the community, helped E club students with the honeysuckle removal project.

He explained to them how to identify bush honeysuckle by the arrangements of the leaves and noted that if they weren’t sure, they could cut a small branch to look inside.

“If it’s hollow, that’s honeysuckle,” said Virgen.

Some of the honeysuckle plants were small enough that they could just be pulled from the ground, but others were large enough that they had to be dug up.

And still others were too large to dig up. They would have to be cut in the fall.

“This is an ongoing project,” said Smith.