Paola Alvarado, left, with the Climate Protection Campaign's ECO2school program, talks with members of Elsie Allen High School's Green Team as they prepare to serve hot chocolate to students who participated in the Cocoa 4 Carpools event in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, February 26, 2014. Alvarado is a 2006 graduate of Elsie Allen. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Elsie Allen grad gets students to think green

Born in arid, inland Mexicali, Paola Alvarado was a preschooler when her parents ushered her across the border to coastal California. She promptly fell in love with the ocean.

She became determined to train for a career as a scuba-diving marine biologist aboard a research vessel. Not long into her first boat ride, though, trouble bubbled up.

"It turns out I'm very prone to motion sickness," she said with a slight twist to her radiant smile. She returned gratefully to terra firma and adjusted the focus of her environmental ambitions.

Now 26, the Santa Rosa resident works to engage secondary-school students in a quest to alter the human activity broadly blamed for atmospheric warming. At present she carries word of the crisis, its causes and its remedies to her alma mater, Elsie Allen High School, and nine other area schools.

An upbeat sort by nature, Alvarado isn't inclined to stand glumly before teens and lay out scenarios of the global devastation, disruption and agony she believes are inevitable if the planet's temperature continues to rise.

As a community educator with the Santa Rosa-based Climate Protection Campaign, she tries to inspire students to have fun and get some exercise while doing their part and inspiring others to help save the world.

"We encourage biking a lot," said Alvarado, coordinator of the campaign's ECO2school program, biking and also carpooling, riding the bus, walking and rethinking what is purchased and consumed, and what is thrown away.

Alvarado dreams up incentives to encourage young people to change their transportation and consumer habits for the sake of limiting the greenhouse gas emissions produced by automobiles, power generation, manufacturing and waste disposal.

To entice students to look into alternative transportation or to sign up for the climate campaign's online challenge to reduce their emissions, she doles out hot chocolate and brainstorms with campus leaders on other sorts of purposeful fun.

Last week alone, she drew attention to the cause by helping Windsor High School students whip up smoothies in a bicycle-powered blender, and she returned to Elsie Allen to host bike races in which the last person across the finish line won.

Her boss, Ann Hancock, the Climate Protection Campaign's director and co-founder, praised her "uncanny ability to connect with and motivate students."

The campaign reaches out to young people because they're seen as less set in their ways and more accepting of the need to alter their habits and assumptions for the good of mankind and the planet.

"We really need to make a shift," Alvarado said. She said many young people are confused by all the talk of global warming and they want to know more about the causes and remedies.

She works with kids at eight participating Sonoma County high schools and two middle schools. She goes onto campus seeking to improve what she calls students' "climate literacy" and to build greater awareness of their choices regarding behaviors and activities that can be either good or bad for themselves and the environment.

Though she seems ideally suited to activist work at the schools, Alvarado long imagined herself donning air tanks and a mask and acting as a guardian of the seas.

"I always wanted to study the ocean," she said. The fascination dated to when her parents, both Mexican immigrants, settled for a time in the seaside San Diego area.

The couple later split up. Alvarado was 12 when her mother, Lorenza, moved to Santa Rosa with her and one of her younger brothers, Francisco.

Her English grew steadily better as she progressed through Santa Rosa public schools, graduating from Elsie Allen in 2006. Determination, scholarships, help from her family and loans then took her through UC Santa Barbara.

"I paid for my first quarter in college not knowing how I was going to pay for the second and third quarters," she said.

She studied environmental science and marine biology, abandoning the goal of becoming a diver aboard a research ship with the discovery that she didn't have the stomach for it.

A naturalized U.S. citizen since mid-2012, Alvarado insists that her love and concern for the oceans are undiluted by her switch to advocacy of climate protection.

After all, oceans cover more than 70 percent of the planet she wants to protect. And she dreads seeing the melting of polar ice increase that percentage.

As daunting as the global crisis is, Alvarado finds that young people feed her optimism that the human race will halt the warming before it's too late.

"We have no other choice," she said.

As she rallies their conviction and leadership, Alvarado will sometimes share her favorite declaration by Eleanor Roosevelt: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and

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