Westchester youth helping the planet, protecting important habitat
By Elizabeth M. Johnson
Justin Sather is an environmental activist who works tirelessly to save endangered frogs, protect the rainforest and reduce plastic pollution in the ocean. In just under five years, he’s raised nearly $25,000 to save the planet. And he’s only 10 years old.
Sather, who lives in Westchester and is a fourth grader at Westside Neighborhood School, has loved frogs since he was a baby. His favorite frogs are the mossy frog, strawberry poison dart frog and the glass frog. In kindergarten, he learned that nearly one-third of the world’s frogs are close to extinction and that they are dying because of pollution in the air and water.
“Frogs breathe and drink through their skin, so they are sensitive to their environment. Scientists say that frogs are indicator species. This means the frogs are telling us the world needs our help,” Sather said.
Focusing on frogs
Sather wanted to help the frogs but didn’t know how a little kid could make a difference. His mom, Sheri, read him the book “What Do You Do with an Idea?” by Kobi Yamada, which tells kids that one idea can change the world. Yamada’s follow-up book, “What Do You Do with a Chance?” gave Sather additional courage to be brave and take action even when it seems hard.
Sather started selling toy frogs to his family, friends, baseball teammates and neighbors. For his birthday, he held a cleanup party at the Ballona Wetlands and told his friends about the importance of frogs. He even designed frog-themed shoes that were sold by PLAE shoes, which donated a portion of the shoe sales to the SAVE THE FROGS! organization.
Through his efforts, Sather was able to present SAVE THE FROGS! founder Kerry Kriger with a check for $1,000. GoFundMe named Sather one of its Kid Heroes, which enabled him to reach more people with his message and to raise more money to save the frogs.
When Bravery Magazine featured Sather as a “Brave Kid,” he was invited to San Francisco to meet Dr. Jane Goodall, which he called one of the most rewarding parts of being an environmental activist.
“She told me to continue to be brave,” Sather said. “She also told me to help with plastic pollution, because by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.”
Protecting the planet from plastic
Sather began looking for ways to reduce plastic pollution. He discovered that making small changes can make a big difference. For instance:
• He taught his classmates not to use plastic baggies or plastic straws, and he used some of the money he had raised to provide each student with metal straws and reusable baggies — one sandwich size and two snack-size for each kid.
• He collected plastic toothbrushes (which end up in the ocean and in landfills) and replaced them with eco-friendly toothbrushes made from recycled yogurt cups (another source of plastic pollution).
• He collected 200 pounds of plastic bottle caps, which were shredded, melted and turned into a buddy bench for his school.
• He encouraged students to switch from bottled water to reusable water bottles.
Sather’s activities have even brought him new friends across the world. On Earth Day 2019, Forbi Perise, a 22-year-old environmental science student in Cameroon, reached out to him for ideas to deal with plastic pollution in his community. The two became pen pals and started “The Parallel Projects.”
Through this project, they went on social media and asked young people around the world to suggest ideas for what could be done with discarded plastic bottles.
“We came up with so many ways to make things out of plastic bottles,” Sather said. “You can turn bottles into arts and crafts like toy cars and boats, planters, bird feeders, earrings, bottle cap art, all kinds of stuff. Turning trash into treasures is just like magic.”
In addition, Sather and his third grade classmates drew pictures of their favorite endangered animals, which were displayed on reusable water bottles and sent to Perise’s class in Cameroon. Sather even recycled enough plastic bottles from his community’s Fourth of July parade to help pay Perise’s college tuition in Cameroon (about $120).
Plastic recycling has become a family affair. Sather’s dad, Kyle, purchased a plastic shredder and oven. The set up in the family’s garage is used to shred plastic, melt it down, and fabricate colorful plastic bowls that can be sold to raise money for Sather’s environmental projects.
Saving the rainforest, acre by acre
Sather’s current focus is saving the rainforest, which is home to many of the frogs he loves, as well as many other endangered animal species. He is a member of the Reserva Youth Council, a group of 50 kids and young adults who share a goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030.
“Half of the world’s rainforests have disappeared and could be gone in 100 years,” Sather said. “We’re buying acres of land to protect it from being developed, to save it for nature.”
Sather was the youngest member of the Reserva Youth Council until a month ago, when his little brother Tyler, 8, joined the group. Most of the members, who come from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ecuador, Pakistan, India, Poland, Kenya and Cuba, are in their late teens and early 20s. Together, they are working to raise enough money to protect a 244-acre area of Ecuador’s Choco rainforest — the first youth-funded reserve in the world.
“It costs $730 to buy an acre of land, and I’ve raised enough for two acres,” Sather said.
Sheri surprised Sather with the news that her birthday fundraiser on Facebook had raised enough to buy a third acre. The Youth Council’s fundraising is matched by the Rainforest Trust, doubling the impact of their efforts.
Sather tracks his fundraising efforts by coloring in a picture of a frog he drew. For each acre he completes, he is using a different color — red, green, yellow.
Sather is asking kids and young adults (26 and younger) to write a letter explaining why they like nature and want to protect it. The Reserva Land Trust will match each letter with a $3 donation that goes toward the Choco Rainforest Project.
“My goal is to collect 243 letters that will buy another acre of land,” Sather said. “Then we want to share the letters with world leaders to get their attention and show how much people care about the planet.”
A froggy future
Sather shares his message and recruits new young environmentalists by talking with school classes, scout troops and other organizations (currently over Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic). He uses Facebook (The Parallel Projects) and Instagram (@justinsfrogproject) to share his latest activities.
Eventually, he would like to work with an eco-friendly company, like Lush or Shore Buddies, to create a frog plush toy from recycled materials and sell it to raise money for environmental projects.
“I want to protect the land, and I want to make sure lakes and oceans are clean for animals and for the next generation,” Sather said.
Help Sather save the planet by writing a letter, taking a pledge to reduce plastic pollution or making a donation at fortheloveoffrogs.com.