By B.C. Manion
She’s just 11 years old, but Avalon Theisen already knows what she wants on her license plate when she’s old enough to drive — Nat Geo.
That’s because the Lutz girl has a thing for the environment — frogs, in particular — and she wants to become a National Geographic explorer when she grows up.
Of course, she would be willing to work for The Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, too.
She just wants to spend her time exploring in the field and sharing her discoveries with an audience.
It may seem like somewhat of a stretch for a sixth-grader to be thinking this way, but in a sense, it’s simply an extension of what she already does — just on a grander scale.
The home-schooled girl recently was named one of 10 national winners of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which was established by author T.A. Barron in 2001 to spotlight young people whose stories will inspire others.
The honor included $2,500 and a trip to New York, where she participated in interviews with more than 20 television stations and three radio stations. Avalon said she enjoyed her trip to New York and taking part in the press interviews, adding that it showed her the importance of being prepared.
The recognition was based on work she does with Conserve it Forward, an organization she founded to inspire others to take care of the environment.
Avalon is passionate about frogs and began her work to protect them at 9 years old.
She organizes annual Save The Frogs days in Tampa Bay. Avalon takes part in frog listening walks and records frog calls to share with scientists.
Avalon describes her philosophy about conservation on her website, conserveitforward.org, this way: “Find a project you love, act on it, share it with others … that’s how you conserve it forward.”
Avalon said she began developing an interest in frogs when she was 8 and was taking a class from George Heinrich, a herpetologist who nominated her for the award.
“I started going to these frog listening hikes and workshops,” Avalon said. “I was learning how to identify frogs and their calls and their sounds. Then I became a citizen scientist and recording what I was hearing.”
She also got involved with an organization called Friendly Water for the World, which helps people get clean, safe drinking water through biosand water filters.
Next, Avalon started making items she could sell to buy filters so others could get clean drinking water. She also began taking classes at a nature preserve called Camp Bayou Learning Center.
“Eventually all of the things started fitting together and then came Conserve it Forward,” said Avalon, crediting her mom, Deborah, for helping her come up with the name for the nonprofit organization.
Avalon said she’s keenly interested in frogs because they are an indicator species.
“They help us to know about the health of the environment,” Avalon said. She added, “They have permeable skin, which allows chemicals, water, gas and all different kinds of things to pass through it easily. So, if a frog was in or near a lake, and say that lake has been polluted by pesticides running off from people’s yards into the lake, then that frog or frogs, the population of amphibians, will probably die out, disappear.
“You know something is wrong with the environment because they are usually one of the first creatures to disappear,” Avalon continued.
Frogs are also an important part of the food chain, Avalon said: “Their tadpoles help keep the water clean by feeding on algae.”
Plus, she said, “They help keep the insect population down.”
Avalon said she’d like to reach out to teach people of all ages about the importance of protecting the environment.
She’s already given a number of talks to groups at zoos and nature preserves and spoken at a GreenTrends conference in Palm Beach Gardens. Avalon also took part in the Atlanta Earth Day Cleanup Challenge at Centennial Olympic Park.
One of Avalon’s next projects will be to write a storybook that emphasizes conservation, which she will be using to teach a nature class for younger kids. She plans to include interactive elements to encourage audience participation as she reads along.
Avalon is home schooled, but that’s a bit of a misnomer, said her mom, Deborah.
“She’s on location in the field, in a co-op, in a class or online,” said Deborah, who drives her daughter to the various learning venues. They also travel to other locales such as Costa Rica to expand Avalon’s educational opportunities.
When Deborah heard that her daughter had won the Gloria Barron Prize, she was delighted.
“I was so proud. I was really surprised because when you look at the kids who have won in previous years, it blows you away,” Deborah said.
It proves that someone with a passion can make a true difference, Deborah said.
“You don’t have to be an expert,” Deborah said. “You don’t have to have 18 degrees to help. You just have to have the heart to do it.”
Deborah also believes that her daughter has the potential for reaching a wide audience with her message, one day.
“When she’s in front of a camera or in front of an audience, that’s when she seems to be the most comfortable, or her best,” Deborah said.
For more information about Avalon and the projects she’s involved with, visit www.ConserveItForward.org.
Help the world by helping frogs*
—Pick up trash.
—Reduce chemical use.
—Pet frog tip: Get captive bred, not wild caught.
—Have a pet cat? Make sure it stays indoors.
—Learning anatomy: Choose digital frog dissection.
—Become a frog listening volunteer.
—Never let your pet frog loose in the wild.
—Create a frog habitat in your yard.
*Source: Conserve it Forward, Making the world a better place
Avalon’s list of honors
2012 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes
2012 Robert Bateman Get to Know Grand Prize Winner in video category (Wild Neighbors)
2012 Save the Frogs Day Award
2011 President’s Volunteer Service Award
2011 Everything Is Possible Award by Friendly Water for the World
2011 International Eco Hero Award by Action for Nature
2011 Nate the Newt Award for amphibian conservation by Save the Frogs