GreenTown USAby Daniel Wallach, foreword contributor of Green Town U.S.A.: The Handbook for America’s Sustainable Future (Hatherleigh Press, July 2013) and Executive Director and Founder of Greensburg GreenTown

You may have heard of Greensburg, Kansas, the little town only 1.5 miles wide that was 95% destroyed by a tornado in 2007.   What you may not know is that Greensburg chose to transform tragedy into opportunity by deciding to rebuild “green.” Since we made this decision, we have received quite a bit of exciting recognition. President Barack Obama mentioned it in his address to a joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009 and Leonardo DiCaprio, working with the Discovery Channel, produced a documentary. We were also featured on the Weather Channel during a segment entitled “When Weather Changed History.”

But the story of Greensburg, Kansas does not begin and end there. In fact, our decision to rebuild green is, in a way, the prelude to a new chapter for every town and city in our country, especially in light of the recent and ongoing disaster in the Gulf. Individuals across America can look to Greensburg, a.k.a. “GreenTown”, as an example of how we can change the course of history and change the way we live with the environment in mind, and how young people can be instrumental in this change.

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Turning Tragedy into Opportunity

On May 4, 2007, with little warning, Greensburg, Kansas was hit by a 1.7 mile-wide, EF5 twister tornado.  The tornado swept though the town, leveling nearly everything in its path in a mere half hour; when it was all over, the tornado had obliterated 95% of Greensburg. Tragically, eleven lives were lost. For those who survived, the future was uncertain. Homes and businesses were gone. Even the Big Well Museum, Historical Museum and City Hall, landmarks that had been a part of our town’s history since its founding in 1886, were destroyed. Folks literally had to start all over again, from scratch.

In the face of this destruction, the citizens of Greensburg found an opportunity and a meaningful mission: together, we decided to rebuild our town as a “green town.” The decision began with the mayor and city leaders and, as an experienced developer of nonprofit community organizations with a real interest in green building and living, I immediately offered my services. My wife and I set up this new GreenTown to work with the residents on what it means to “live and build green.”

One of the most surprising lessons in the days, weeks and months that followed was how eager the young people of Greensburg were to step up and help rebuild their community. A little over three-and-a-half years after the storm, our town’s ability to recover from tragedy is truly rooted in the efforts of our young people.  Just how did Greensburg’s youth figure so prominently in its rebuilding?

It all began in the beginning stages of rebuilding when a group of Greensburg High School students affirmed their commitment to green practices by forming The Green Club. More than just an ordinary high school environmental club, The Green Club was created to help people become more efficient and, in doing so, bring about change in the community, the nation, and the world through the power of educating and inspiring others. The members of the Greensburg High School Green Club are living “right in the thick of things,” and, months after the tornado, had to contend with lives turned upside down just like everyone else. Yet they had the courage and the vision to create a group amongst themselves that could reach out to others. Their efforts to improve the world are them are truly inspiring, and can serve as a message to young people across America on the benefits of getting involved in their community.

The students of the Greensburg Green Club were truly active and valuable members of Greensburg’s green initiative. Case in point: in January 2008—only one month after the trailers supplied by FEMA had been taken out of Greensburg, when many families were just moving into their new homes—the students spearheaded a Christmas tree recycling program. The program was set up not only to benefit the environment, but the residents as well: the club collected Christmas trees to be mulched, and gave the recycled resource, free, back to homes and families to use in their gardens, yards, and fields. For their next project, the Club again looked to involve, and benefit, the residents directly. They set up a lightbulb exchange program where residents brought in their dead bulbs and exchanged them for longer-lasting, energy-saving Compact Florescent Bulbs (CFLs).

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Supporting Our Youth

Greensburg GreenTown enjoyed encouraging the young people’s personal investment in rebuilding. We wanted them to see everything that was going on around the world in terms of rebuilding sustainably. So, along with Steve Hewitt, the city manager, a number of other Greensburg leaders, and 18,000 people from around the country who are interested in innovating green building techniques, a handful of students went to the 2007 Green Build conference in Chicago from November 7th through 9th, organized by the USGBC. There the students saw keynote speaker Bill Clinton discuss sustainability as well as scores of exhibits and presentations centered around the conference’s main theme that year that might as well have been fated for the Greensburg contingent—Accelerating Green Communities.

Today, the high school has been rebuilt right before their very eyes as one of the biggest and greenest buildings in Greensburg, complete with its own wind turbine that generates electricity on site. This truly green building will now serve not only as a center for learning, but as continual inspiration for our youth to strive for environmental change. The Greensburg School houses 200-300 students in a $52 million, 120,000 square foot, state-of-the-art, LEED Platinum facility. It is the largest building in Greensburg and one of the most energy-efficient and self-sustaining. Like other buildings in Greensburg, the school will have the capacity to harvest rainwater for irrigation, have a green roof (for growing vegetation), and be constructed for optimal daylighting. Up to a third of the school’s electricity will come from a wind turbine on the grounds. It will be the perfect facility to educate the next generation about sustainability; this building is an energy-efficient exhibit in which the children will learn, first hand, about the importance of living responsibly and treating the Earth with respect.

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Inspiring Other “Green Towns”

Just as the Greensburg High School students have come together with their community to implement change and educate others about green practices, schools across the nation share this same power to inspire their communities and impact their larger world. While most communities are not faced with the task of completely rebuilding their schools, the Green Club’s Christmas tree recycling and light bulb exchange programs are examples of ways that all students can begin working together to improve their communities.   Whether or not a school is able to implement environmentally-conscious components like wind energy and a green roof into their buildings, it is important for many reasons that students across America are involved in the green movement.

The story of Greensburg and the action of its young people provides a shining model of what I hope will become many success stories about the motivation of our country’s young people, and their ability to change their communities for the better. Children and young adults are stewards of our future, who better to become directly involved in its protection? As Green Town’s experience demonstrates, it is our responsibility as educators to help foster an environment in which they can put their ideas into action.

Daniel Wallach is the Executive Director and Founder of Greensburg GreenTown, a grassroots community-based organization that works side-by-side with city and county officials, business owners, and local residents to incorporate sustainable principles into their rebuilding processes.

To get in touch with Thomas J. Fox about how you can affect change at your school, email highschool@randomhouse.com

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