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Alisha Fredriksson (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Alisha Fredriksson (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Little penguins inspire teen activist Add to ...

“Rocks!” Alisha Fredriksson shouted to the hikers below as she sent debris tumbling down the 350-metre-high volcano she was climbing on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

At the peak, the 16-year-old peered out at the rows of icebergs that surround the planet’s serene southern pole. Taking a moment of silence with her fellow climbers, she was bound by the only sound – the chirping of a couple hundred thousand Adélie penguins that inhabit a region humans can only tour.

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The young woman explained the sensation on a satellite phone hours later, in the midst of a recent two-week journey exploring the Antarctic Peninsula with 58 other students and 30 adults as part of the Students on Ice annual expedition. It’s an experience designed to instill deep-seated connections among youth and the environment, while chewing over global warming on the continent that is home to 90 per cent of the world’s ice.

For Alisha, a Grade 11 student at Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Mini School, a school within a high school catering to academic high achievers, winning one of five Leacross Foundation scholarships for this once-in-a-lifetime voyage is another feather in her cap. The Hungarian-born daughter of a Chinese mother and a Swedish father is a budding activist, a profitable entrepreneur and a champion rhythmic gymnast.

Alisha belongs to an inspiring legion of young activists poised to take on the unfinished causes of their parents’ generation. She has grown up immersed in dinner-table conversations about “the magnitude of climate change,” explains her father, Claes, who helps to operate a green-energy social networking site, IsCleaner.com. She has spent Christmas Eves handing out presents to the homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and her exposure to the striking contrast in fortunes both within and among the four countries she has called home – Hungary, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada – have infused her with what her father calls “a willingness to take on the world.”

She is full of ideas and, judging by her prizewinning science-fair projects, such as her Shower Heat in Floor Tiles plan to retain heat from wastewater, she has the drive to give them life.

Alisha’s latest brainchild is a project to pair individual rooms at upscale hotels with Habitat for Humanity houses sponsored by donations from guests staying in those rooms. She says the initiative is still in “phase one,” but she already has the support of the chief executive officer of Kiwi Collection, a company that curates a listing of luxury hotels around the globe, and she has touched base with Habitat for Humanity.

Last summer, standing in a hotel room in Courmayeur, Italy, where she was travelling with her family, “it just sort of hit me,” she says. “I just realized how I was fortunate enough to live in places away from my home when some people don’t have homes to begin with.”

But it’s not just charity work she is interested in; Alisha also runs a small jewellery company, Brite Jewelry, for which she made a website two years ago and has since filled orders from as far away as Japan. She hands over her business card and explains proudly that the “hobby” has earned her around $4,000.

And she credits gymnastics with teaching her valuable life lessons. A six-time provincial champion, she clings to a few traumatizing memories of failure to keep her motivated. At the western regional championships four years ago, she dropped all her throws during a ball routine. “I was just feeling embarrassment and terror,” she says.

“It’s happened a couple of times, where I make one mistake and then it just snowballs. The challenge is to just forget about what’s happened and just focus on the moment.”

That is what she tried to do as she experienced moment after moment of awe while sailing around the Antarctic. The stunning amounts of ice in the southern netherworld and the remarkably unperturbed penguins are forever etched into her mind.

Her voice raises and her speech quickens in detailing the birth of a baby penguin: “We saw the egg hatching, a little penguin moving its head and peeking out.”

It was a brush with new life to bring the trip home. “Meeting all the wildlife to see how our unsustainable lifestyles will hurt them,” she says. “ ... The things I do and the choices I make will affect these little penguins on the other side of the world.”

With her adventure complete and her activism emboldened, Alisha plans to show pictures and share stories at Vancouver elementary schools, doing her part in the endless campaign to rally more kids to the cause.

Students on Ice

Students on Ice, based in Gatineau, connects environmentally minded youth, inner-city teens and northern aboriginal adolescents with scientists, activists and educators.

Geoff Green, a former teacher, has guided nearly 2,000 students – usually aged 14 to 18 – on the $9,500-$13,500 yearly trips to the Arctic and the Antarctic since 2000. Organizers look for a strong interest in the environment, a proven desire to make a difference and a demonstrated capacity for leadership.

“One of the kids from Iran who came, she went back to Iran and started a national youth radio program in Tehran,” Mr. Green said. “One kid from Calgary who got a scholarship to Princeton is taking a sabbatical because she invented this thing to make solar panels 40-per-cent more effective.”

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