The finalists for this year’s Caring for the Kenai Contest may have had to present their projects to the judges virtually, but they received in-person recognition for their hard work during Wednesday’s Kenai Chamber of Commerce Luncheon.
The luncheon, which took place at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center, featured Caring for the Kenai’s Founder Merrill Sikorski and local lawmaker Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who announced the names of each of the finalists and presented them with a cash prize and a C4K T-shirt. The students in attendance also came on stage to briefly explain their projects before receiving their awards.
The Caring for the Kenai Contest asks high school students around the Kenai Peninsula to come up with an idea that they want to implement related to environmental conservation or disaster preparedness. This year, the winner of the contest was Anna DeVolld, a 14-year old Connections Homeschool student whose pollination project, Promote our Pollinators, got its start at last year’s Caring for the Kenai Contest.
“Last year I entered P.O.P. as an idea, and this year I entered it as a completed idea and also what’s going forward,” DeVolld said. “I’ve carried out my initial idea, which was to create activity books and fliers to educate our community about the importance of pollinators, and going into classrooms and giving make-and-take presentations where students plant their own pollinator packs, which are six-pack pots that contain six different pollinator-friendly seedlings.”
In addition to getting local business owners and community members to plant thousands pollinator-friendly plants around their homes and businesses, DeVolld has developed an online curriculum around P.O.P. and has received her business license so she can market the curriculum to schools nationwide.
“I was able to put lessons, videos, quizzes, activities, writing prompts,” DeVolld said. “And all of that aligned with KPBSD standards so students could use it for their distance curriculum.”
Many of the finalists focused their projects on issues that impact the local community. Andrew Gaethle, a sophomore at Kenai Central High School, has an idea to organize volunteers that would clear areas of the peninsula that are dense with beetle-killed spruce trees.
“My solution includes volunteer work or possible forestry work to go in and clear out the most heavily affected areas on the peninsula,” Gaethle said. “Like, on the way from here to Anchorage, you can see all the beetle-kill along there. And of course the Swan Lake Fire showed what will happen if it is left sitting there.”
Each of the 12 finalists received a cash prize for their efforts ranging from $400 to $1,600, and their schools also received a total of $20,000 donated by a number of community sponsors.
Marathon Petroleum is the contest’s biggest sponsor each year. Cameron Hunt, who is the plant manager of the Marathon Refinery in Nikiski, sent in a congratulatory video message that was played during the luncheon. Hunt was also one of the judges of this year’s contest.
“As you know, we got our big turnaround event coming up, but I just wanted to take a couple minutes to congratulate the 12 finalists of this year’s Caring for the Kenai,” Hunt said in his video. “Your ideas are fantastic. We loved watching the videos and then getting a chance to interact with you a couple weeks ago, and a special recognition to the top three: Anna, Lindy, Akilena and Austin. They returned from last year and took their ideas to the next level. Your hard work and your caring for the community really was evident in your presentations and all the progress you’ve made over the last year. Congratulations, you all have bright futures.”
After all of the finalists had received their awards, Sikorski reflected on how far the contest has come in the 30 years since its inception.
“My wish for you, is that your idea, as simple as it was, as simple as it is, 30 years from now, will choke you up the way you kids choke me up,” Sikorski said. “It’s one of the best rewards and biggest paydays that you can ever have.”
2020 Caring for the Kenai Finalists
1st place — Anna DeVolld, Connections Homeschool
2nd place — Lindy Guernsey and Akilena Veach, Seward High School
3rd place — Austin Cline, Homer High School
4th place — Nekoda Cooper, Kenai Central High School
5th place — Elyse Ledda, Cook Inlet Academy
6th place — Ashley Dahlman, Soldotna High School
Finalists — Andrew Gaethle, KCHS; Carter Kincaid, Soldotna High School; Madison Story, Homer High School; Regan Evans, Soldotna High School; Jesse Wahl, Cook Inlet Academy; Emily Lamb, Cook Inlet Academy.