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Maria Casciani, a senior at Montgomery High School, wasn’t deterred her sophomore year when she checked out her school’s environmental club and found it consisted of just a handful of students.

“It was a very important issue to me, so I thought I’d stick with it,” she said. By the end of the year, she was named president of the club. Under her leadership, it has grown to about 20 students and ushered in numerous environmental initiatives on campus.

That first year, she said, the club was considered a bit of a fringe organization on campus. But that didn’t bother her much, and she summoned her courage to take a leadership role, which included speaking to about 500 students during a rally to encourage recycling.

“My whole thing is, this is important to me. I’m not going to walk away from it because of something stupid.”

Indeed, Casciani, 17, has developed an ability to draw other people to the cause she considers so vital, said Paola Alvarado, who coordinates a program called ECO2school for the Climate Protection Campaign. The program encourages students to walk, ride a bike or carpool to school as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Casciani was instrumental in bringing the program to her school two years ago, Alvarado said.

Now, Montgomery High School has one of the most active ECO2school programs of any high school, she said.

The school’s environmental club, Green Team, also grew as a result of her leadership, Alvarado said.

“It’s grown because she’s warm, engaging, easy to talk to and friends with anyone,” she said.

Melissa Matson, adviser to the Green Team at Montgomery, said she was impressed by Casciani’s dedication to the cause. She said the fact that “she’s looking at global issues and worrying about the future of her planet” set her apart from many of her peers.

Casciani said she first got interested in environmental issues through her father, a retired mechanical engineer. “We don’t have cable at our house, so I watched a lot of NOVA science documentaries growing up,” she said. “We’re a very science-focused family.” She remembers a key inspirational moment as watching an “An Inconvenient Truth” with her family.

Casciani thinks most of her peers know global warming is a problem. But most don’t act because they think the issue is so big the only way to solve it is through large political actions taken by national leaders, she said.

“People forget that the president won’t do anything if the people don’t take action first,” she said. Still, she acknowledged, “It’s hard to get kids to step away from pressing issues like family, relationships and money problems.”

She says she tries to get her peers involved by making events fun and accessible and by focusing on practical steps they can take to actually create change. “When you go into scare-tactic mode, it’s not effective,” she said.

Last year, seeing a need for kids interested in environmental issues to be able to connect across high school campuses, she dreamed up and organized a countywide conference on climate change where teens could swap ideas and make connections.

“I thought that to make a bigger impact, we needed to connect as a force,” she said.

The Green Teen gathering, organized with help from the Climate Protection Campaign, was a success and is now in its second year, Alvarado said.

Casciani also became one of the first members of the Climate Protection Campaign’s Youth Advisory Board.

The environment isn’t Casciani’s sole focus. She earns all A’s in her school’s International Baccalaureate program, where she says she equally enjoys English and physics. She plays tennis on Montgomery’s varsity team and sails competitively.

A formative year for Casciani was the one her family spent on a sailboat in Mexico when she was in first grade.

“Honestly, my coolest childhood memories come from that,” she said. “I got to have a lot of experiences no other kids get.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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