Rizzo brings home Caring for the Kenai

  • Anya Hondel, the 2017 winner of Caring for the Kenai, participates in this year’s judging for the contest’s annual oral presentations Thursday at Kenai Central High School. (Photo by Kat Sorensen/Peninsula Clarion)
  • Caring for the Kenai winner Carlee Rizzo, a junior from Nikiski High School, took this year’s top prize with her project, a video game aimed at teaching elementary students that they can make a difference. (Photo by Kat Sorensen/Peninsula Clarion)
  • Soldotna Prep freshman Erika Arthur, from left, Nikiski High School junior Carlee Rizzo and Soldotna Prep freshman Ryder Giesler made the top three out of nearly 400 proposals in this year’s Caring for the Kenai competition. Rizzo won first prize, Arthur took second and Giesler won third. (Photo by Kat Sorensen/Peninsula Clarion)

Whoever said video games are bad for kids hasn’t met Carlee Rizzo, whose winning Caring for the Kenai project turns that notion on its head.

The Caring for the Kenai contest challenges and educates high school students across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to make an environmental difference or prepare the community for a natural disaster, and this year’s winner exemplifies the environmental mission by teaching the younger generation that it’s never too late.

Rizzo, a Nikiski High School junior, took home top prize at the 28th annual event, held Thursday night at Kenai Central High School’s Little Theatre, with a video game and interactive presentation aimed to teach elementary school students that they can counteract bad choices made by others that harm their environment.

“I always knew that I wanted to work with the younger generation because that’s where I feel like most of our future is going to depend on,” Rizzo said. “I like talking to the elementary school kids to get in there and talk to the kids and see if I can inspire someone to make a difference.”

Rizzo’s idea extends the goals of Caring for the Kenai to the digital world through video games and the classroom’s interactive smart boards.

Elementary students are tasked with finding solutions to environmental issues. Rizzo has brought her game to classrooms, and said the students really enjoy it.

“If you ask any kid what they want to do, they will probably say play a game,” she said. “They are responding really well. Throughout the entire time that I was there I was using cards, but then halfway through I didn’t need the cards anymore because the kids were coming up with their own solutions.”

Rizzo said her next step is finding a video game engineer to improve and grow her game.

“I want to get more development from someone who really knows video games,” Rizzo said. “It’s about finding someone who will volunteer.”

Two Soldotna Prep freshman finished out the top three.

Erika Arthur took second place with a self-watering lettuce tower that she hopes to install in district schools, starting with Redoubt Elementary School, to reduce the community’s dependence on imported foods.

“It will be inexpensive, easy to build and students will be able to have fresh lettuce for their salad instead of chemically treated imported lettuce,” Arthur wrote in her proposal.

Arthur said she’s also interested in bringing her project to local farmer’s markets.

Ryder Giesler took third place with a project that has already come to fruition; now it’s just about reinforcing good practices, he said. Giesler’s proposal, written in November, included the goal of a plastic bag ban, which actually became a reality in Soldotna earlier this month when the city council voted to enact one.

“I do a lot of outdoor activities,” he said. “I get sick and tired of seeing these plastic bags and litter around when I’m doing these activities.”

With the ban taking effect Nov. 1, Giesler said, his main objective is to make sure people remember their reusable bags.

He’s planning on spending his Sunday, which is Earth Day, handing out reusable bags to shoppers throughout Soldotna.

He also said he’ll use some of his prize money to buy more reusable bags.

“I’m so happy, I met my goal and I’m in the top three,” Giesler said. “It feels awesome.”

The top three projects were chosen from a group of 12 finalists who gave presentations on Thursday night. Fourth place went to Kenai Central High School freshman Marek Grieme.

Daisy Kettle, a sophomore from Homer High School, took fifth. Riley Graves, a Kenai Central High School freshman, won sixth place.

Other finalists included Mya Betts, Hunter Warren and Colby Marion of Homer High School, Christian Kuczmarski and Parker Kincaid from Soldotna Prep and Emma Mullet and Vanessa Beck of Kenai Central High School. The 12 finalists were chosen from a pool of nearly 400 proposals from across the school district.

The finalists received cash prizes, ranging from $1,600 to $400 and their school’s science departments will receive a total of $20,000.

They were sponsored by Andeavor and community partners including Kenai River Raven Lodge, Hilcorp Energy, Peninsula Community Health Services, ConocoPhillips, Sweeney’s Clothing and Peninsula Radiation Oncology Center.

The presentations were judged by a group of community members including Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, Assistant Superintendent John O’Brien, Cameron Hunt of Andeavor, Tim Dillon of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, Dick Erkeneff of Kenai River Raven Lodge, and Jade Gamble from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The judge panel was rounded out by last year’s Caring for the Kenai winner, Anya Hondel.

“I didn’t really get the opportunity to experience the different presentations last year,” Hondel said. “This is very awe-inspiring — I was very impressed.”

Reach Kat Sorensen at ksorensen@peninsulaclarion.com.


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