Hope restored

When Heather Spalding returned to Portland State after transferring to Oregon State about two years ago, she discovered that the same environmental club, of which she had once been a member, was on the verge collapse.

When Heather Spalding returned to Portland State after transferring to Oregon State about two years ago, she discovered that the same environmental club, of which she had once been a member, was on the verge collapse.

Struggling to continue might be a more apt description, as the abandoned club was desperately close to losing its student fee status and the funding that comes along with that designation.

Without leadership or a solid member base, the Portland State Environmental Club was in dire need of a spark. And that came in the form of a foursome of devoted, environmentally conscious students back in October 2007.

“We just jumped in,” Spalding said. “We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Spalding enlisted the assistance of then environmental sciences and management chair John Rueter to find her companions. Rueter delivered, bringing Spalding together with a few of his students: Becca Aaby, PJ Houser and Elsbeth Seymour.

The four students collaborated and quickly devised a plan to assure the club’s funding. But it was not easy. The Student Fee Committee completely cut its funding for the 2008-09 academic year, only after appealing twice was it restored.

Once funding was assured, the foursome began establishing the club’s goals.

“We realized the need was there at PSU,” Spalding said. “Here we talk a lot about sustainability, but it is not always accessible to students.

Spalding, currently a club member, said the primary objectives were to give students opportunities to get involved and let them know there are ways to help.

Now that the Portland State Environmental Club is up and running with an active membership of 20 students and three student coordinators, Spalding admits that it is about five times more successful than she initially imagined a few years back.

Houser, one of three coordinators—with Lisa Meersman and Aaby being the others—said two campaigns have dominated the club’s activity this year: “Take Back the Tap” and working to bring learning gardens to campus.

Meersman is spearheading the efforts for the “Take Back the Tap” campaign, where the Environmental Club purchased 540 metal canteens and has sold a little more than 300 at a reduced price to make a profit to install water bottle refilling stations around campus.

A freshman from Tacoma, Wash., Meersman said that with slightly more than 300 canteens sold it should be enough to purchase one refilling station.

While the “Take Back the Tap” campaign is underway and picking up steam, Houser said the campus learning gardens project is still in somewhat of a planning stage.

On April 14, a forum was held to brainstorm ideas for the gardens project, which Houser said would ideally include several plots of land around campus devoted to gardens that professors could incorporate into their curriculum and student groups could utilize for hands-on experience.

The two campaigns combined to receive about $8,000 in funding from the $25 million matching grant for sustainability that Portland State received from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation in September.

Outside the campaigns, the Environmental Club has assisted in numerous other efforts, however, there is one goal, above all else, that defines the group: getting students involved.

“We would like to have more opportunities for students to do tangible things,” Houser said. “We’re beginning to learn how to get students involved.”

The Environment Club’s role in bringing the “Blood, Guts and Gore” Internet telecast concerning voting and sustainability featuring former Vice President Al Gore to the South Park Blocks in October and sending about 30 students to the Power Shift 2009 conference in Washington D.C., is evidence of the group’s emerging influence.

But it is a different and novel focus that might define the club’s future.

A self-proclaimed optimism fiend, Meersman is the youngest coordinator at 19 and represents the club’s future. She has fresh take on how the Environmental Club can broaden its reach around campus and it has nothing to do with recycling or living sustainably.

“We really need to be compassionate about the Earth, but we also need to be compassionate about other people,” Meersman said. “I want to break down the barrier that either you are a radical environmentalist or you can’t be with us. No one is perfect.”

With that said, a bright future appears to lie ahead for a club once on the precipice of extinction, an occurrence that would have left the university housed in the South Park Blocks without an Environmental Club for the first time since the 1980s.