Do you have a corner of your yard that collects more water than the rest? Maybe an indentation in the landscape that floods every time it rains? Until now, that corner has just been a nuisance, full of mud, pouring water into the street, and creating an eyesore on your property. But according to 19-year-old Union College sophomore Sara Covelli, that area is not only a wasted space, but a wasted opportunity to help the environment.
Covelli, who is majoring in Environmental Policy and minoring in Climate Change (a major she designed on her own through being awarded a Seward Fellowship), is responsible for what will soon be Union College’s first rain garden. This project, thanks to Covelli, will increase water quality and make use of runoff rainwater on campus. I was able to catch the busy Covelli in between classes, during a break from her exam studying, to ask her a few questions about her impressive rain garden initiative, and her love for environmental work.
For Covelli, improving and caring for the environment has always been a passion. When she was a child, Covelli attended a sleep away camp, which focused on exploring the outdoors and understanding the environment. As a sophomore in high school, she spent a summer at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute program (ESSYI), where she explored environmental policy, economics, and ethics, studying in labs, classrooms, and outdoors. From her experiences, Covelli knew she wanted to be involved in working towards better sustainability, but she didn’t want to be a grassroots activist; she wanted to make big changes and she wanted to start immediately.
When she came to Union College, Covelli was immediately impressed by the unique U-Sustain Committee, which uses the combined efforts of eco-conscious faculty, staff, and students to oversee sustainability efforts and achievements within the university, and educate the campus about environmental issues and going green. U-Sustain, which meets three times a term to discuss relevant issues and projects, constantly facilitates composting and recycling at Union College admissions events.
Last summer, the summer after her Freshman year, Covelli went home to work in Nassau County’s environmental resource department, taking part in their campaign to install rain gardens throughout Long Island county. Though she had never worked with them before, rain gardens quickly became a cause which Covelli wholeheartedly supported. Rain gardens, explains Covelli, are thoughtfully placed gardens, which absorb and filter the runoff rainwater, extracting pollutants before the water reaches the drain system. Rain gardens are usually planted in a shallow depression where water tends to accumulate after rain, and consist of a calculated mixture of drought resistant plants, and plants which can thrive with large amounts of water.
Over the summer months, Covelli gained a profound appreciation for the visual and ecological benefits of installing a rain garden, a project that she says, “is easy and available to everyone.” These simple gardens can often include truly stunning plants, and they can improve the quality of an area’s nearby bodies of water, as well as cut down pollution in creeks and streams by up to 30%.
It’s no wonder that, after returning to school for her sophomore year, Covelli decided to apply for a Presidential Green Grant to install a rain garden on her college campus. The Presidential Green Grant is administered by the U-Sustain program and presents yearly awards of $2,000 to up to 16 students with plans for projects that will help Union College achieve its sustainability goals. Covelli filled out the simple application, including the areas on campus she thought would be most suitable for placement, and an approximate cost of the construction and materials she would need to realize her goal.
Not only was Covelli’s idea awarded a Green Grant, but the university decided that a rain garden would be the perfect addition to their new senior college dorms, opening in June. Covelli was awarded double the grant funds to expand her project, and invited to attend weekly meetings with the dorm architects to plan the landscaping and ideal placement and layout for the rain garden.
Because she now has the ability to give this project all the nurturing it requires, Covelli hopes to bring in landscape ecologist and national rain garden expert Rusty Schmidt, who she met during her work over the summer, to advise on the best plants and placements for the garden. Schmidt has assisted in the installation of over 20,000 residential rain gardens country wide, and understands the various details involved in designing and implementing gardens. “If designed correctly,” says Covelli, “a rain garden will never need maintenance.”
For a girl with this much green in her blood, you might expect her to have time for nothing else, but Covelli is somehow able to balance it all, making time for friends and enjoying every bit of her studies. Rather than seeing these initiatives as detracting from her time, Covelli knows this is her chance to implement the change she wants to see. “These opportunities are available to me at Union,” says Covelli, “so why not take advantage of the opportunities and change the campus?”
We’re sure to see lots more change out of Union College in the next couple years, thanks to this groundbreaking student, but, with Sara Covelli’s environmental enthusiasm in mind, there are plenty of things every Hometalker can do to bring a little more green into the world.
Are you up for the challenge? Share your favorite water conservation or green living tip below, to spread eco-consciousness and help build a greener community! If you’re inspired to take an extra 10 minutes and make a difference, post a green living how-to to Hometalk or any social media, with the hashtag #CovelliStartedIt — I’d love to check it out!
Any opinions Expressed in “Youth Perspectives” are those of external parties and not those of Thomson Reuters.