The impact of the Clean Water Celebration ripples through generations
For 30 years, the Sun Foundation has been bringing together the best environmental minds in the area for its annual Clean Water Celebration—but the impact of the event goes far beyond the walls of the Peoria Civic Center exhibit hall.
Founded by Joan Root Ericksen and Bob Ericksen in 1973, the Sun Foundation is celebrating 50 years of art and science education for youth across central Illinois. Based in Washburn, the Foundation’s marquee events are Art and Science in the Woods, a week-long day camp held in the summer, and the Clean Water Celebration.
Bob Ericksen has a storied history as an artist and educator, and he believes that the Celebration serves as a perfect introduction to environmental awareness for a diverse group of young people.
“Science is there for all of us, and education is a unique vehicle,” said Eriksen. “The students who are here come from all sorts of different schools, that’s a good thing.”
This year’s Celebration was held on April 24 and hosted over 1,400 students from the area. The event featured a number of exhibitors ranging from Peoria Public Works to Nicolina’s Turtle Company, an organization founded by a middle school student who sells hand-made pouches for reusable straws. Students from Pontiac High School gave presentations on their plans to improve their local waterways, and representatives from the Ho-Chunk Nation played music and performed traditional dances.
Aaron Amstutz, Chief Technology Officer at Natural Fiber Welding, delivered two keynote speeches, and he says in order for young people to care about building a more sustainable future, they must first understand why it’s necessary.
“I believe that students…will only protect and do what they need to when they actually love something,” said Amstutz. “If we love clean water, if we love natural beauty, if we love this earth, we will do what we need to to protect it, and I can’t convince someone to protect it unless we culture those loves first.”
Amstutz emphasized that the goal of the Celebration goes hand-in-hand with the goals of the company, one of which is to create “plastic-free performance materials to remake everything.”
“Our products will be sold to people that are convinced that we need to do better for the environment [and] for the earth,” said Amstutz. “We want to have a whole bunch of companies that fill a value chain that is full of natural, sustainable, renewable products.”
Event Chair Karen Zuckerman echoes Amstutz’s point, expressing hope that the Celebration will help to get the next generation thinking critically about products they are using.
“The overall focus is looking at how we can make what we need now in this world, and look at it in a circular economy focus, so that if we make a choice when we ask for a product to be made…that we look at its total lifespan,” said Zuckerman.
Zuckerman was a teacher for 45 years, and sees environmental education as a way to build hope for the planet far into the future.
“It’s like being in touch with what will happen when I’m no longer here,” said Zuckerman. “That the planet will have caretakers, and hopefully [with] the students that I taught…there will be this little spark about, ‘Oh, the planet has needs, and we can support it.’”
Longtime Sun Foundation educator and supporter Shelley Fritz can provide first-hand testimony about the lasting impact the Foundation’s programming can have on students—both of her sons are now working in the disciplines they studied at Art and Science in the Woods.
“The one kiddo is studying geology at Illinois State University…he took Merrill Foster’s geology class probably for seven consecutive years,” said Fritz. “My other kiddo did the theater classes every year, and this year is teaching the theater class at the Sun Foundation.”
“Just watching my kids doing the programs out at the Sun Foundation, being a part of things like [the Clean Water Celebration], and then following that up with building their lives around the kinds of things that they’ve done in these programs I think is a perfect example of the impact these things have on kids,” said Fritz.
When it comes to the future of the Foundation itself, co-founder Joan Root Ericksen says they are doing everything in their power to ensure programming will be available to students for generations to come.
“We’re working on a plan that will hopefully allow the organization to continue for another 50 years,” said Ericksen. “[We’re] working on a succession plan and fundraising so we can hire the people that can carry on…we’d like to see it go on beyond our lifetime.”
Joan says that their son, Brett, who is currently the Program Director, will be integral to the next stages of the Foundation.
“Our son has taken over the work we’ve done for the last 25 years,” said Ericksen. “The young people that you see here today, the volunteers you see today, they will carry the organization forward.”
Overall, Joan is optimistic about the power of environmental education, and she sees a bright future for the planet when it’s placed in the hands of those students at the Celebration.
“They have to do the work,” said Ericksen. “This is their planet and…their leadership will take us to another level.”