Karen Gomez was standing outside her house on Friday morning when a sanitation truck rolled past with a familiar picture painted across the side. The image depicted two possible futures: a bleak, polluted world of chemical spills and rampant trash, and a fertile environment of leafy trees and conservation.
The image was familiar because Gomez, an eighth grader at Robert Fulton School, had designed and drawn it herself. Gomez was the winner in the fourth annual “Go Green Save Green” poster contest, sponsored by the North Bergen Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), the Board of Education (BOE), and the township.
More than 2,000 posters were designed and drawn this year by students throughout the township, from which about 90 were selected for special recognition. Honorable mentions went to nearly 80 students, while prizes went to first, second, and third place winners in each of four categories: grades 1-3, 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12.
In addition to being featured on the sanitation truck, Gomez’s artwork is the cover image on the glossy 2016 calendar from the MUA. All the winners are featured on one month, with all the honorable mentions included at the back.
Saving the environment… and money
“It’s a good program that promotes recycling,” said Frank Pestana, executive director of the MUA. “The more we recycle in town, the more money we save.”
The MUA has two branches, handling wastewater collection/treatment as well as solid waste and recycling services. Residents are billed directly for the water they consume and send to the MUA for treatment. The sanitation aspect is funded by the township through taxes.
“It’s a win-win situation… The more we recycle, the less burden we put on the environment, and the less money we spend.” –Tom Stampe
“It’s a win-win situation,” said MUA Recycling Aide Tom Stampe, who is one of the coordinators for the contest. “For the township, the MUA, and for the environment. The more we recycle, the less burden we put on the environment, and the less money we spend.”
Residents already recycle bottles and cans reasonably well; paper less so. That led to the poster contest being initiated four years ago to spread the word throughout the schools. And it has worked, with kids taking the message to heart and bringing it home to their parents.
The contest is a collaboration between numerous entities. “It’s a cooperative effort between the MUA and the school, which are autonomous agencies, and the township,” said Stampe.
Heather Carline serves as liaison between the MUA and the schools. Carline is coordinator of the schools’ Gifted and Talented program. Also supporting the program are the art teachers throughout the school system, as well as the environmental club and the robotics club.
“Even the maintenance people and the custodians help out by putting up posters,” said Carline.
Paper for the contest is supplied by the MUA – all recycled, of course. Funding for the program comes from a $70,000 tonnage grant from the DEP.
In addition, this year for the first time the contest had two sponsors, Alamo Insurance and Suez Water (formerly United Water), who have supported other environmental initiatives in town like the annual Summer Green Health Fair. Gift certificates were also provided to all the participating art teachers by DiPalma Brothers Restaurant.
“We try to get a new truck every year or two so we put the artwork on the newest truck we have available,” said Pestano. “We should be getting a new truck in April or May so next year’s will probably be on that.”
Gomez and her friend and classmate Jiana Yan-Fransisco were getting nervous as the honorable mentions were called one by one and their names weren’t among them. The occasion was a pizza and cupcake party at the high school on Nov. 24, where the poster contest winners were announced.
“At first I didn’t really think I was going to win,” said Gomez. “I’d seen the previous ones that won and they were really amazing.”
Gomez, 15, came to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was 7. She has always been interested in art and waited years to take the tests to participate in the P.E.A.K. (Providing Enrichment & Accelerated Knowledge) art classes in Robert Fulton.
“In my school probably less than 10 kids in seventh and eighth grade made it this year,” she said.
Gomez, who hopes to make art a career, has also been in the environmental club for three years, so “I know the effect of humans on the environment.”
After submitting to the contest last year and garnering an honorable mention, she credits her teachers, Paul Ensmann and Emily Inagaki, with motivating her this year. “They pushed me a lot to do better than what I thought was good enough.”
When the time came for top honors, Gomez and her friend found themselves called onstage. Yan-Fransisco took second place in grade 7-8, and Gomez won first prize, going on to land the grand prize.
“It was a little overwhelming and kind of embarrassing at the same time,” said Gomez. “My friends were standing there taking 20 million pictures of me. They brought me outside to see the truck that already had my picture on it, the drawing I drew. I was very proud of myself.”
In addition to bragging rights and the place of honor on the calendar, Gomez took home an iPad for her efforts. First place winners got Kindle Fires, second and third place winners got $100 and $50 gift certificates respectively, and honorable mentions received gift cards from Brick Oven Pizza.
“I saw them giving out the calendar at Winterfest,” said Gomez. “People were saying how good it was and they were smiling. My parents were really proud and they said it wasn’t a surprise to them that I won something that has to do with art.”
Copies of the 2016 calendar are available at the MUA and at public buildings in town.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.