SALEM — When eighth graders at Blanchet Catholic School got digging in the drainage ditches on their Northeast Salem campus, what they discovered surprised them.
Out came an old baby swing. They lugged up a shopping cart. But what was really astonishing was how their cleanup would do more than just make the ditch look better. They learned that the water from their school drains into Claggett Creek, which in turn flows into the Willamette River and on to the Columbia and the Pacific. What they did just outside their classroom door could affect the planet.
Eighth grader Tayden Goodeill wasn't convinced at first that all the hard work would do much good. Then he realized the property's link to the Willamette and the rest of the globe and he thought of a song his class had sung in religion class: "It only takes a spark to get a fire going."
"I'm learning to keep invasive species out and native species in," says Tayden, a member of Queen of Peace Parish. Like most of his classmates he does worry about the planet's survival and is glad to do his part.
"I very much believe it will make a difference," adds eighth grader Ben Bartch.
"Obviously, our class can't tackle the whole Willamette River or even a small chunk of it, but what we are doing enlightens others. Part of our project is being public stewards of the watershed."
Ben, from a farming family that attends Mass at the Trappist Abbey, says he was surprised to learn many things, like how trees on the riverbank help keep water temperatures right for fish.
The work at Blanchet began as part of a program organized by media giant Disney. The Disney Planet Challenge encourages environmental clean up in local communities. The Blanchet students, in addition to removing trash, have been yanking invasive plants — mostly blackberry brambles — from the stream banks, replacing them with native species. The idea is to restore the little streams to a more pristine state, improving water flow.
On some lists, the Willamette is among the 50 most polluted rivers in the nation. In other ratings, it's as high as third. Many of the problems come from urban runoff, farm fertilizers and higher water temperatures.
"We started looking at the health of the Willamette and found how polluted it is," says Micki Halsey Randall, a Blanchet science teacher. "We wondered what we could do on a small level and still have an impact."
Saving the earth is the cause of this generation, says Randall, a member of St. Paul Parish in Silverton. "They are really taking ownership of this," she says.
The Blanchet effort, one of 1,200 undertakings nationwide, won praise as the best Disney Challenge project in Oregon and the sixth best in the country.
The students want to teach the community about the importance of their work, so they are building a demonstration garden with native plants. The garden work got some help in the form of a grant from the Diack Ecology Education Program. The funds will pay for water and soil testing kits, field guides, and other supplies to help turn the property into an outdoor laboratory.
Parents have gotten involved in the work, even joining the students on a tour and service field trip to remove invasive species on a wetland at the Oregon Garden near Silverton.
The eighth graders have become zealous advocates, urging schoolmates to clean up around streams and rivers near homes and parks all over Salem. In science and English classes, the students created brochures, wrote parish bulletin announcements, developed a website, created a video and worked up a presentation for the Blanchet school board.
"If we don't do anything it's just going to get worse," says eighth grader Alyssa Walsh, who also attends Queen of Peace. Getting out to do the work could inspire others, Alyssa says.
"It's fun getting involved. Otherwise we'd just be working from books," says eighth grader Cassie Fountain, also a member of Queen of Peace.
"We wanted to help the Willamette River and broke it into its tributaries. Then we figured the best place to start was on our own property. I really do feel like this could help."