By Robin Mayo
Every year, WISE recognizes a youth who exemplifies leadership, stewardship, and community service. This year, we are honoring Cassidy Austin-Merlino of McCarthy. She has participated twice in Copper River Stewardship Program, and used that experience as a springboard to get involved in statewide youth advocacy.
Cassidy first came to the Wrangells in 2012, when her family started McCarthy River Tours and Outfitters. Of summers in McCarthy, she said “The most important childhood memories were here, with the community and going on adventures. Because of that I fell in love with the environment, wanting to find different ways to explore it, and preserve it for future generations.”
WISE first met Cassidy when she joined our inaugural Geology Camp in 2016. It was the first time we gathered youth from the Copper Basin and McCarthy to explore and learn together. For Cassidy, it was a chance to meet a larger circle of youth and introduce them to her beloved home.
The next year, she came on Copper River Stewardship Program, spending 10 days with a cohort of youth from diverse communities. Cassidy quickly emerged as a leader with her knack for making friends, infectious enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn.
“That trip was super life changing for me…..it inspired all of the activism I do now. I started falling more in love with the watershed I live in.”
In 2018 Cassidy participated in Alaska Forum on the Environment with her Copper River Stewardship Program cohort, and Alaska Youth for Environmental Action’s Civics and Conservation Summit. “It was youth from all over the state bringing in different perspectives, from the Arctic and Indigenous Communities, that was super eye opening for me.” From her winter home in Anchorage, she started getting involved with statewide campaigns such as salmon habitat conservation. She led the committee that organized the student Climate Strike last September, and was featured in a story on KTUU News.
In 2019 Cassidy once again came on Copper River Stewardship Program as youth leader, with additional tasks including organizing media files, leading group discussions, and mentoring other students. At home in McCarthy she worked long shifts as a dishwasher, organized a community action group, and still found time for boating, biking, making art, and exploring the wilderness.
When I spoke to Cassidy in late March, her family was in McCarthy, taking advantage of the isolation there to ride out the coronavirus. Although lamenting the loss of senior year rituals, she looking forward to attending Western Washington University in the fall, planning to major in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies.
Asked how the present pandemic is going to change her life, Cassidy chose to take a big-picture view. “I think it could definitely help people realize that we need to live more sustainably, and take good care of our resources… When you walk into a grocery store and it’s empty, for a lot of people it may be the first time realizing that we don’t always have all of the resources we need, so we need to be really careful of what we use and what we waste.”
When asked for advice to pass on to other youth, Cassidy encouraged them to get out activities like Copper River Stewardship Program, to learn about their home. She also encouraged them to “use your voice, speak up, it is extremely powerful.”
Thank You Cassidy for stepping up as a leader, we are proud of you.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.