It's not every day that you hear of lawyers starting an environmental movement, but that's how the Miami non-profit, Dream in Green, came to be in 2006.

Founded by Nicholas Gunia, a former New York City attorney, and Carlos Canino and Amy Rosenberg, two Miami-based attorneys, the trio, who met at a Miami Fellows Initiative and envisioned a program where individuals, especially youth, could feel empowered to take tangible steps to address climate change and other environmental challenges facing South Florida.

"Kids are the most powerful catalysts for change in society. So we challenge those kids to go out and find ways to reduce energy consumption, reduce water consumption, reduce waste, and respond to climate change," said Gunia, during a TedTalk, where he explained Dream in Green's flagship program: the Green Schools Challenge.

This "whole-system program" challenges Pre-K through 12th grade students in Miami-Dade and Broward to engage in hands-on "green" activities at their schools that promotes resourcefulness.

To date, Dream in Green's programs have served 330 schools in South Florida and over 90,000 individuals – roughly 74,000 of whom were K-12 students, filling the need for environmental sustainability education.

Some of the specific projects that high school students have undertaken include conducting energy audits of their school to see where they can improve in reducing energy consumption.

To do that, they measure how many kilowatts the school uses each day (based on electricity bills or how long, on average, an appliance stays on) and then formulate a math equation to calculate the school's carbon emission over the course of a year. They then take action to reduce that carbon footprint, such as turning off lights and unplugging electronics while not in use and adjusting the thermostat so that electricity is not constantly being used when no one is there.

Miami-Dade elementary school students have used science skills to create solar heaters, while middle school students utilized their critical thinking skills to create a board game to learn about transportation issues affecting Miami-Dade County.

Each lesson learned is followed by the students completing an action to address said issue. Carpooling, biking and taking public transportation to school are all ways the students have put the lessons they've learned into practice.

For every challenge students or classes complete, their school earns points. Often, the students or teachers will take photos of their completed challenges and email the photographs to Dream in Green or will upload them to social media to document their work.

The elementary, middle and high schools with the most points are invited to an awards ceremony, which Dream in Green hosts to honor the schools that have completed the most challenges.

Prizes for winning schools include environmental outreach programs provided by Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation Department's EcoAdventures program; free field trips and transportation to Vizcaya Museum & Gardens; and "living wall" installations as permanent fixtures at their school - which are types of vertical gardens.

The Green Schools Challenge also provides educational workshops, online resources and classroom learning so that teachers and students can learn about the connections between natural resources, climate change and community sustainability.

"Dream in Green supports our schools, teachers and students in their effort to become more environmentally responsible with our everyday decision making," he said.

Dream in Green's reach has grown exponentially since its inception.

In the past year, 114 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward registered for the Green Schools Challenge. Over 800 teachers in Miami and Broward are actively involved in incorporating environmental sustainability into their classrooms. The majority of elementary, middle and high schools are public schools, but the Challenge is open to private schools as well.

"Environmental sustainability is really at the focus of all of the things we do," says Barbara Martinez-Guerrero, Dream in Green's director.

"We create that groundwork, we give that information and then we come up with ways in which the individual can become an active participant in the response," she said. "In all of the things we do, we try to have an action that follows."

The Challenge also helps schools achieve Florida Green School designation status with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

To become designated, schools must conduct a thorough property assessment and implement a specified number of environmental practices in these six areas of sustainable operations, according to the FDEP: communication and education, energy efficiency, waste reduction, reuse and recycling, water conservation, and air quality and transportation.

"There's a lot of tie-in between our non-profit, through Dream in Green's Green Schools Challenge, to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at the state level," said Martinez-Guerrero, about the Florida Green School Designation Program. "We're kind of like the first step."

Last year, Dream in Green disbursed 23 "green leadership grants" totaling $14,000, to aid local schools with their projects. Grant money was used to fund water bottle filling stations at schools, fruit and vegetable gardens, composting programs, rain barrels for water collection and the construction of a greenhouse.

Those schools were part of the Dream in Green Academy, a platform that promotes collaboration with other community organizations to introduce environmental education programs to K-12 schools in South Florida.

If a school wants to register in the Green Schools Challenge, Martinez-Guerrero advises the school to first create a green team – it can consist of school administrators, parents, students and teachers, who can identify and help with the "green" needs of their particular school. Then, participants complete self-assessments of the effects of the work they did in completing the challenges.

Martinez-Guerrero says the push for schools to apply or renew for green designation is important because she says it's an opportunity for schools to be part of a larger community of green schools, starting at the local level. Those interested in learning more about the Florida Green School Designation Program can visit: https://floridadep.gov/osi/green-school-designation/.

Since its inception, Dream in Green's Green Schools Challenge has helped Miami-Dade County public schools save over $3 million in energy costs, save over 32 million kilowatt hours of electricity, and reduced or offset nearly 50 million pounds of C02 emissions.

Students, teachers and staff often take what they've learned from the Green Schools Challenge and apply it to their own households and communities, creating a ripple effect in generating positive change.

"Our plan is to hopefully have all schools in Miami-Dade County be considered green schools and for them to also consider themselves as green schools," said Martinez-Guerrero. "We want to get everyone involved towards a more sustainable environment and sustainable practices."

LEARN MORE

Website: www.dreamingreen.org

Office line: (786) 574-4909

Email: Info@dreamingreen.org

Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com

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