Imagine learning about wildlife from two teenagers on a pandemic day on the third floor community terrace of an urban apartment building in Yorkville? Read on.
It’s a story that’s so uplifting, promising and optimistic that it makes you feel that whatever’s happening in the here and now won’t last forever and that good things are coming. It’s about youth, caring, commitment. It’s the story of how two NYC middle schoolers spend their time and share their lives and how we met. I was on the terrace reading, writing when I saw these teeny tiny tie dye masks hanging from tree branches. A young teen was running back and forth, removing them, replacing them. Curious, I asked her why.
She told me that she and her friend, who was with her, were engaged in a project which they started when they were in the same fifth grade elementary class at Lower Lab School PS 77. They now attend different schools and continue the project. I was so impressed - make that blown away - that I asked them to write it all out and that I’d like to write about it in my column. In short order they emailed the backstory of what two dedicated 12-year-olds, Lily Leshanski and Emma Savonije, have been doing since fifth grade. Lily now goes to The Clinton School and Emma to East Side Middle School. Lily lives in the building where I live. Emma lives nearby. Here’s Lily and Emma’s edited email:
We started Lily and Emma Nature Foundation in fifth grade when we were studying our debate topic, zoos. We learned about the good side of zoos- zoos that helped injured animals until they were fit enough to return to the wild, zoos that rescued animals and used them to educate the public about the beauty of the creatures that we share our planet with. We also learned about zoos that mistreated animals - one elephant’s domain was so infested with rats that his legs were eaten up to his knees. We read about wild animals killed for fur, tusks and even scales.
Lily’s dad is a vet, so she was close with animals from a young age. Emma had learned to love animals from her countless stuffed animals, pets, and travels around the world.
From the very start, we worked long and hard to build our organization. We told our classmates about our idea. They helped, making us friendship bracelets and key chains for us to sell at our monthly sales. One day that we remember with clarity was in winter - one of our friends had found an old necklace kit and we were working on it in the recess yard. The temperature was in the twenties. We shivered as we opened the box and spread the contents over the ground. With numb fingers, we fumbled with clasps, beads and craft glue, but when we were done, sitting in the warm cafeteria with our food almost untouched, we were filled with a sense of pride. The necklaces sold out at our very first sale.
We had a schedule. At the beginning of each month, we went into working mode. We brought cases full of embroidery thread to school, bags of beads, boxes of charms. We and our classmates worked through recess and lunch, before school and after school. We learned new stitches and taught them to everyone else. When we had a good amount of bracelets, we packaged them in little bags with notes in them, describing the bracelets. One said:
With this bracelet
To change the world.
On the day of the sale we would gather ingredients and whip together a sweet treat. Either cookies or Rice Krispies and pink lemonade.
Sales days were always exciting. We set up our table and sign on a corner, usually on 91st St. and Third Ave. People would come and go, leaving with a treat wrapped in a napkin, a paper cup filled with lemonade, a tiny bag with a sweet bracelet for their little one waiting at home.
At day’s end, we’d count up our money, pack up and head home. We donated 75% of the money to an organization helping endangered wild animals around the world. The other 25% went to buying materials for our next sale.
Lily and Emma Nature Foundation is an organization that donates money to organizations helping endangered WILD animals such as the polar bear, the pangolin, the snow leopard, the elephant, not domestic animals such as cats and dogs.
So far we have donated money to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), 4ocean, the Wild Bird Fund, and we are going to donate to Snow Leopard Trust.
Some important dates that stand out include the day that we brought a saw-whet owl to the Wild Bird Fund. We’d knew about the Wild Bird Fund and when we saw Merlin, we knew the time had come. Owls, usually nocturnal animals, fly around at night, usually out of sight. So, we knew something was wrong when Merlin was spotted, a small brown, beige, and white owl, flopping around on the sidewalk in broad daylight.
Someone brought him to Lily’s dad, who is a vet, and Merlin was put in a dark cardboard box with a few newspapers and a hole on the top for air. Lily’s dad identified him as a saw-whet owl. He was obviously sick as he stood still as a statue in his box. We named him Merlin. Everybody piled in the car and started out for the Wild Bird Fund. When we were almost there, Lily, who was holding Merlin’s box in her lap, asked, “Dad, are owls supposed to lie down?”
We stopped the car. The Wild Bird Fund was only a few streets away. We got out of the car and Lily’s dad lifted Merlin out of his box. He was dead. Heartbroken and grief-stricken, we brought him to the Wild Bird Fund and later donated money to the Wild Bird Fund, in hopes that someday another bird might have a chance at survival, unlike poor Merlin.
Another event was when we had a sale at 92Y. This is a happy memory. We talked to 92Y about hosting a sale in its facilities, and they said yes! We set up a table on the Y’s third floor with a few friends and a more diverse selection of crafts - from handmade cat clips out of pistachio shells to hand-knitted scrunchies.
And at Halloween. Lily (as Nova from Marvel), Emma (as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz) and Oscar (Emma’s brother, as Captain America), set out trick-or-treating armed with a bag for candy and an array of painted tissue boxes. At each door we asked for a donation to Lily and Emma Nature Foundation. Our boxes grew heavy with change. At the end of Halloween, we gathered together, counting money and candy, packing the money into a white envelope to be donated, trading lollipops for Tootsie Rolls and popping mints into our mouths dyed blue from Jolly Ranchers.
During quarantine, we’ve had these memories to look back to. When we went to different middle schools, we refused to give up Lily and Emma Nature Foundation. Even in lockdown, we devised a way to sell our goods while not hosting sales. We combined the fad with the current pandemic and made tie dye masks for our sales. We are also going to sell our crafts goods online and in other ways. We are working on our website and writing a book, “Through the Eyes of the Wild,” which we hope to publish. Each chapter is told through the eyes of a different wild animal, struggling to survive in a world that humans are ruining. So far we have written about tigers, pandas, sea turtles, polar bears, golden tamarin monkeys. We’re working on one about a kangaroo.
We’re creating an Etsy account named SavingOurPlanet. Info for Venmo - https://venmo.com/code?user id=3104105094447104279. Info for Etsy - https://www.etsy.com/shop/SavingOurPlanet?ref=ss profile
That’s what’s happening in NY wildlife. And to bring it back to something more Manhattan - when I met Lily and Emma, I didn’t know that Lily’s dad was veterinarian Dr. Jonathan Leshanski of athomevet.com who happens to be the vet for my two cats. We live in the same building where I met Lily and Emma. Very Manhattan, very urban NY ... no degrees of separation. Where everybody gets to know everybody ... no introduction. It all just happens. So let’s start spreading the Wildlife word.