OPRF High School seniors Sophie Ball (middle left) and Jelena Collins (middle right) with New Zealand artist Uili Lousi and other youth leaders at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26. | Provided.

Manolo Avalos loves being outdoors. The 15-year-old enjoys following the trails through forest preserves or just walking around his Oak Park neighborhood, looking up into the tall trees whose leaves glitter with sunlight or glisten with rain and change every season. He holds those quiet moments close but fears they could be lost if people, young and old, don’t come together and start caring for the environment.

On Nov. 4, Avalos, a member of the youth-led group It’s Our Future (IOF), went on Zoom and spoke to dozens of teens across Chicagoland and the nation about the need to protect the planet. The online event, titled Youth Voices on Climate: COP26 and Beyond, was hosted by Oak Park nonprofits, Seven Generations Ahead, which launched IOF as a project, and One Earth Film Festival. For over an hour, a community of mostly young people gathered to talk about various climate issues, listened to interviews with environmental activists, and watched a few highlight reels from IOF’s trip to Scotland for the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26.

“Everyone needs to do their part,” said Avalos, a sophomore at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

During the virtual event, Avalos, who phoned in from home, and another IOF member offered some ways people can get involved, including joining or creating an environmental club at school, donating to organizations, and reaching out to local, state or national representatives to pass climate legislation.

IOF members Jelena Collins and Sophie Ball echoed Avalos’ advice. The two, who are OPRF seniors and were among a small group of Chicago-area teens who traveled to Glasgow for COP26, told Wednesday Journal people don’t have to travel thousands of miles across the world to make a change. Change can — and should — begin right at home.

“Just get involved in something,” Ball, 17, said. “There are dozens of climate groups available to youth in the Chicago area alone. Most of these groups are extremely welcoming and grateful for any new members. The climate movement is a complicated thing to navigate by yourself, but having a community helps immensely.”

In separate interviews, Collins and Ball shared their experiences at COP26, which started Oct. 31 and ends Nov. 12, and what it was like to be among world leaders and organizers who are also committed to fighting climate change.

“It’s really cool to hear such a wide variety of languages, see traditional clothing and participate in events with diverse crowds where everyone is equally if not more passionate about climate than I am,” said Collins who, apart from IOF, founded a coalition to bring high-schoolers from environmental clubs in Chicago together. “I’ve never been in a group of people like it.”

Ball said she relished the chance to devote a whole week and learn about one of her favorite subjects. At the conference, she hopped from one educational booth to another, attended “country-specific events,” and listened to panels with experts on climate topics.

“The amount of new information I have learned about the climate crisis in just the past week is comparable to what would take months to learn during the rest of the year,” she said.

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