OPRF student Victoria Evans and former vice president Al Gore discuss environmental urgency at COP27 in Egypt. | Photo by Rachel Rosner

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the source of travel funding for two local students to the COP27 climate conference in Egypt.)

Two Oak Park and River Forest High School students traveled to Egypt in November to attend COP27, the United Nations annual conference on climate change. While at the conference which was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt OPRF students Manolo Avalos and Victoria “Tori” Evans got to chat with Al Gore, meet people from all over the world including leading climate scientists and Evans even attended the speech President Joe Biden delivered at the conference.

Evans was thrilled to snag a very brief interview with Gore, the former vice president. She asked him a question while at an event hosted by Climate Reality, a non-profit group which Gore founded and leads.

“That was just incredible,” said Evans of talking with Gore. “I mean I’ve looked up to Al Gore for forever. He was the first (presidential candidate) that my mom voted for. My household has been a big fan for a while. And I took his Climate Reality leadership training which helped me get started in environmental work in the first place and so it was a very full circle moment for me getting that experience and kind of seeing how much my hard work and the hard work of all the other people in Climate Reality has been paying off.”

Evans recorded her question and Gore’s answer. Evans, an 18-year-old senior from Oak Park, asked Gore about Climate Reality’s new global emissions tracking system.

“He said he was optimistic about the use of the tool for that accountability and I think that was really profound and I hope it does catch on more because it is an incredible tool,” Evans said.

The interchange with Gore was brief but exciting for Evans.

Manolo Avalos | David Sattler

“I would say max about two minutes, it was not long,” Evans said. “It was more of like a brief conservation but it was outstanding regardless and I had a really fun time just getting to talk to him.”

Evans and Avalos, a 16-year-old junior from River Forest who is the president of the OPRF Environmental Club, were part of a group of five Chicago area teenagers who were sponsored as “youth observers” at the conference by the Oak Park-based environmental group Seven Generations Ahead. The participation of the two OPRF students was funded by the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation as part of the PlanItGreen initiative which Seven Generations ahead directs.

All the students got the chance to meet and mingle with Gore.

Hearing Biden speak was another exciting moment for Evans.

“It was just insane to me,” Evans said. “I was toward the back so I was very far away from Biden himself.”

Still she was in the same room as the President of the United States hearing him speak on a subject that she is passionate about.

“I think it was incredible to see Biden and hear him speak and it was definitely very moving, but I would say that other countries clearly were kind of getting tired of the kind of the sort of small promises that the United States was making rather than kind of the big contributions that they were expecting or are necessary,” Evans said.

While at the conference Avalos and Evans met all sorts of people: activists, scientists, delegates and governmental officials.

“We spent some of our time trying to track down different delegates from different nations to get the perspectives of their countries specifically so we had conversations with the delegate from Tonga, I talked to one of the ministers of Norway I believe, like delegates from Zimbabwe, a bunch of different countries,” Evans said.

OPRF student Manolo Avalos (center) talking to Al Gore while attending the COP27 event. | David Sattler

They also watched numerous panel discussions and struck up conversations with people from all over the world including with those who rode the same bus that took them from their hotel to the conference and back each day.

“It was pretty amazing listening to the different languages on the bus,” Avalos said.

Avalos, who took a lot of video of the conference, said that his most exciting and memorable moment was getting to interview renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech. 

They both said attending the conference made them even more motivated than they have been to work to reduce emissions and protect the Earth. Evans said that it was moving to talk with people who are being directly affected by climate change and to get more of a global perspective.

“Sometimes I think we take for granted being in a developed nation and seeing what we have and you don’t realize the very real struggles of other areas,” Evans said. “And just hearing their stories and then also hearing about how much they were calling for the United States to act and do their part was really eye opening.”

Evans said people in the United States and other developed countries must do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We really need to protect these other people and we’re not,” Evans said.

Avalos and Evans attended the first week of the two-week conference. Seven Generations Ahead paid for the students airfare and expenses and also paid for one parent to accompany each student. Evans’s mother, Stacey Kielbasa, accompanied her on the trip. Both of Avalos’s parents, Katie and Steven Avalos, made the trip.

Evans, who is a captain of the OPRF girls swimming team, arrived in Egypt a day later than the rest of the Seven Generations Ahead group because she had to attend to some other business first. On Nov. 5 she closed out her high school swimming career by swimming two events in the sectional meet at Leyden High School. Right after finishing seventh in the 100-yard butterfly in the middle of the meet Evans showered, rapidly changed clothes and hopped in the car with her parents to rush to O’Hare to catch her flight to Egypt.

“I felt bad being the captain and not being there with the team through all of it, so that was really hard,” Evans said. “But I think COP was a once in lifetime opportunity. My team understood. It was sad in the moment but I think they all understood that it was important to me and they all wanted to support me.”

Evans and Avalos will discuss their visit to COP27 on Dec. 6 from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at Cross Function at 1033 South Blvd. in Oak Park at a free event sponsored by It’s Our Future, the youth arm of Seven Generations Ahead.

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