For a select group of New Haven youth, promoting personal growth, protecting the environment and doing the “Evaporation Dance” go hand in hand.

Four local high-school students spoke Monday at Silliman College’s “Not Your Average Master’s Tea,” sponsored by the Dwight Hall Urban Fellows, about their leadership and involvement in combining environmentalism and camaraderie into an opportunity for growth for New Haven kids. Representing Solar Youth and LEAP and sharing their ideas with an older audience composed of approximately 25 students, professors and pre-frosh, the local teens fielded questions about the challenges of engaging other youth in community activism.

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Joanne Sciulli FES ’96, a co-founder of Solar Youth, said before the event that unlike most youth developmental programs, Solar Youth blends community service and character building with a global concern: environmentalism. The program usually takes place after school and during the summer.

Sciulli, currently the executive director of the program, said a lack of positive opportunities for the kids in New Haven to express themselves compelled her to establish Solar Youth in 2000. Armed with a masters degree in urban environmentalism, Sciulli set up Solar Youth to provide students from elementary to high school a chance to impact society and nature in a positive manner, she said, while bettering themselves in the process.

“New Haven is a perfect place [with its combination of] city, environment and kids,” Sciulli said.

During the Tea, the two students from Solar Youth echoed Sciulli’s vision for the program’s impact.

J.J. Harris, a high-school senior and student representative of Solar Youth, said the program has helped him become environmentally aware.

“We’ve explored all the rivers and parks around New Haven so that kids could learn the basic environmental stuff about the city, like how pesticides can damage the local waters after severe runoff,” he said.

The student leaders also said they have been able to pass along the expertise they have gained in sharing their knowledge and experiences gained through the program with even younger participants.

Nicole Dunnaville, another high-school representative of Solar Youth, told the audience that student leaders use games, songs and dances — like the Evaporation Dance — to engage their young participants, some of whom are still in elementary school.

“We have a ton of games to help the younger kids understand the effects of environmental damage,” Dunnaville told a laughing audience. “We played a game called ‘Fred the Fish,’ where the kids can learn what happens to fish when pesticides get into the water.”

LEAP is a social and academic organization that seeks to enrich the lives and outlooks of youth aged seven to 23. Founded in 1992, the program pairs each high-school student, called a “junior counselor,” with a college student, “the senior counselor,” to work with younger students Monday through Friday with field trips on the weekends.

But members of both organizations agreed that reaching out to the younger kids is not without its challenges.

When asked by the attentive audience what is their biggest difficulty with running Solar Youth or LEAP, Dunnaville answered, “Our biggest challenge is breaking through the ‘tough’ people and touching their hearts and reaching who they really are.”

Harris elaborated on Dunnaville’s response, describing how resistant participants can disrupt the program.

“The programs are mostly about youth development, and we use environmental cleanup as a tool for interpersonal development,” he said. “There are some people who want to be macho-men, tossing cans everywhere. We want to stop those negative behaviors.”