Teen uses recycling to connect with kids

Saturday, April 21, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Michael York, a junior at Hickman High School, has created his own recycling advocacy program called Coordinated Recycling. Michael frequents youth programs to teach kids the benefits of recycling.

Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.

COLUMBIA — Children crowd around a duct-taped cardboard house scribbling on it with crayons, sometimes slapping the house in excitement.

Michael York's Awards

Michael has won several awards for his community involvement and will win two more awards when his projects are complete:

2009 — Yakima Youth Award for outstanding contribution in community

2010 & 2011 — Presidential Environmental Award for Missouri

2011 — Willam T. Hornaday Award

In progress — 4-H Key Award, completion November 2012

In progress — Congressional Award

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A pyramid of used soda cans go flying when a toddler breaks them up as part of a makeshift bowling game.

A paper "rocket" ejects from a 2-liter bottle following a hard stomp.

Not only do they have a cardboard box to color, but recycled paper and a homemade bin for recyclables, too.

High-pitched exclamations of joy and wonder create a friendly ruckus that Michael York returns to every Friday, bringing with him all sorts of recycled things for the children at New Jeru Kids Daycare to play with.

Michael, a junior at Hickman High School, duct-taped the house together with cardboard donated by a local store. He gathered the old soda cans and bottle, along with other materials to make the rocket, as a part of his recycling program.

Michael picks up recyclables from various locations from his handmade recycling bins made of almost nothing but recycled material.

"Everything but the screws," he said.

Michael's recycling efforts are far-ranging, and are all part of Coordinated Recycling, a not-for-profit company he created in the fall with his mother, Bonnie York. He's used carpet scraps to make cat-scratching posts and salvages wood to build "cat condos" and doghouses for the Central Missouri Humane Society.

Michael has been visiting New Jeru Kids since November to teach larger themes about reusing what you have and caring about the environment. For one project, the children made a terrarium out of an old 2-liter bottle that creates their own "little earth" to witness the process of evaporation, precipitation and transpiration.

Michael, 16, wants to instill environmental stewardship and awareness to children at an early age.

He began his first recycling project in the Cub Scouts that involved collecting aluminum and plastic from the elderly to recycle, and returning the refunds to them. At the time, he was living in Yakima, Wash., where his mother grew up on an Indian reservation.

Bonnie York said her son has long been surrounded with an environmentally conscious support system. Off the reservation in Yakima, she raised Michael and his brother, Sheridan, according to the Yakima Indian culture that emphasizes social unity and nature.

"Recycling is in his blood," Bonnie York said.

Sarah Wilson, the main caregiver at New Jeru Kids, is also the pastor at New Jerusalem Outreach Ministry next door. Wilson said she wouldn't trade Michael for anyone because the children need to learn something different.

"The kids are paying more attention to what he's doing," Wilson said.

Wilson's 10-year-old daughter, Autumn, made a terrarium with a used 2-liter bottle, soil and a plant. It was the first time she'd been introduced to the notion of recycling, and now she's aware of reusing things for storage or play.

Autumn is learning how to place the "trash in the trash" and use a different bin for cans, bottles and milk jugs. Her favorite part of Michael's visits is that all the children "get along and tell ideas and have fun and help the Earth."

An assistant to Michael volunteers at the daycare and reports back about the learning habits of each kid. That way, Michael can create projects that reflect lessons about caring for the Earth.

"I like knowing that the kids have a general idea of why you should recycle," Michael said. "I think that most people who see recycling at an early age don't really think much of it, but will think about it as they get older."

After a good amount of playtime, the kids gather around Michael to learn sign language. Besides advocating recycling, Michael has a passion to sign. He taught them how to sign "recycling is cool" before adding the word "can" to teach "recycling can is cool," referring to the recycling bin he brought in.

"Every time I go over there, they're like 'Teach me something else, teach me something else,'" Michael said. "You know that you've taught them something and they're going to take that somewhere else in the community, and their life. It's a good feeling, that you can do something, and it'll help everybody."

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