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FOOTHILLS Magazine: Environmentalist passes know-how on at Oilfields High School

Dusty Williams has been working with students on the school's Sustainability Program since 2019.
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Dusty Williams poses in front of a mural that highlights the school's Sustainability Program at Oilfields High School in Black Diamond.

Dusty Williams’ relationship with the four R’s goes back a long way. Reduce, reuse, recycle and repair has been his mantra for many years.

As a founding member of the Diamond Valley Sustainable Living Centre, he works to promote ideas surrounding food, water and energy security.

Williams has been involved in a variety of sustainability initiatives, many of them through his company, Sustainable Life. He served as a recycling supervisor and sustainability advisor for the Town of Turner Valley for several years and is a certified LEED green associate.

Spending so much time involved with sustainability, Williams jumped at the chance to pass on some of his knowledge to youth at Oilfields High School.

When he was asked if he would like to work with students and staff at the high school on sustainability projects, he said, “In my wise-crack voice, I said, ‘Would I.’”

He has been working with staff and students at the high school in Black Diamond since 2019.

“I've been there teaching, helping (students) to understand sustainability, their place in this world, and the fact that it's going to be theirs here shortly,” Williams said.

A sustainability club at the school already had a concept for the first step in what would become the school’s sustainability project, and that was a school-wide recycling program.

“(Students) came up with a bit of a program,” he said. “I gave them designs for the bins, they took them to the shop.”

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Students sell produce from their garden at Oilfields High School in Black Diamond on Sept. 29. Proceeds from the market were put back into the school’s Sustainability Program. Robert Korotyszyn/OkotoksToday

Students built recycling bins, and with that, a student-led recycling program was launched at the school.

Cindy Watts, the school’s learning commons facilitator, talked to Williams, outlining a vision for the school’s Sustainability Program, and asked him if he could find a fit.

He said of course, and Williams goes to the school once a month, or sometimes more.

“I've been trying to teach adults for 20 years, and they're not listening,” Williams said.

The Sustainability Program at the school started in a tiny class with six chairs and six students, Williams said. It was a lunch-hour program to start.

“It’s grown from there. I think it's up to about 34, 36 students now.”

“It started with the recycling bins,” he said. “After a few classes, I was coming in and talking to them about composting and whatnot, too.”

Some teachers became interested in helping the students grow a garden behind the school.

With Williams' help, a water harvesting system was designed to use rainwater to irrigate the garden. The system, consisting of a tote and pump, is powered by a solar panel and battery.

“So now they had water coming off the roof of the shed and it was watering the gardens.”

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The Sustainability Program at Oilfields High School started in a tiny class with six chairs and six students but has since grown to more than 30 students. Robert Korotyszyn/OkotoksToday

Watts said that when Williams explained the process to students, it was eye-opening for them.

Harvesting rainwater meant they do not have to take water from the school, or from anywhere else, Watts said.

Composting gave them a similar experience and was a money saver for the green-thumbed students.

They realized they needed to get rid of the waste, and that's when the composting theory came in, Williams said.

“The compost receptacle was a new thing for the students,” Watts said. Composting helped them understand sustainability and how things work together.

Students realized, “Oh, now we don’t have to buy fertilizer,” explained Watts. “We have our own compost that we can put into our own garden.”

They grew numerous varieties of vegetables and learned that seeds from plants they have grown can be used in next year’s garden.

Students have been involved in every step of the sustainability project, right from the start.

Watts said Williams has been able to teach the students and give them skills they would not otherwise get in a school environment.

“He offers them an education beyond what the school would do,” Watts said.

“The students are right into it,” Williams added.

The garden led to other opportunities that were devised by the students, including selling some of their garden produce at a student-led market.

“And they have to fundraise for their own programs,” Watts said. “So that's why they did the markets.”

What was left was given to the food bank, so it goes back to community, she said.

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Some of the produce from the student-run garden at Oilfields High School in Black Diamond went to the school’s foods program, some was sold at student markets and some was donated to the Oilfields Food Bank. Robert Korotyszyn/OkotoksToday

Another plan is to renovate the kitchen in the school’s food room to commercial standards, allowing students to cook and sell food from there.

Then they will look at how to grow food year-round, Williams said.

"The idea is to create an entire community that is as self-sufficient as possible,” Williams said.

“Every aspect of the Sustainability Program, they take part in, and they run it,” he said. “I’m just a facilitator.”

Students also take part in repair cafes that operate in Black Diamond through the Town’s Sustainability Advisory Committee.

Williams has been organizing repair cafes for years, he said.

“This is where people come and bring their stuff and we repair it,” he said, “or not, depending on whether we can or not.”

Eight members from the Sustainability Program showed up for the most recent café.

“They’re starting to repair things, too, so they have hands-on learning,” Williams said.

“They’re thrilled when they come into the repair café, especially when they learn something.”

The concept behind sustainable living is that people should be able to support themselves, he explained.

“Within the community, we can be wholly resilient, wholly self-sufficient,” Williams said.

The positive response from students at Oilfields is what motivates Williams to help with the sustainability project.

The youth are listening, and they want solutions to problems in the world, he said.

“There’s a lot in this old head,” he told Watts one day. “Take it. I’ll come here anytime and teach the students.”

Williams said the students are over the moon with the opportunities they are learning about.

“They know what they're getting. And they know that they will be able to create a world for themselves.”

Williams and Watts hope what is being accomplished at Oilfields High School can be an example and an inspiration elsewhere.

“Already,” Watts said, “Foothills School Division has recognized the things that we’ve been doing, the change that we’re making,”

Real, practical skills are what Williams tries to share with the students.

“How to feed themselves, how to take control of their water, how to repair things rather than buy. Basically how to survive and how to support themselves.”

The students are aware of things like water shortages or the high costs of shipping food, he said.

“We must give credit to these students, Williams said. "Their motivation is admirable.”

“There has been a lot of learning going into it,” Watts said. “In fact, (the sustainability project) helps them with their careers.”

Students realize they could stay in Black Diamond and start businesses here, using some of the skills they are picking up from Williams, she said.

“I know they’ve been networking and getting jobs right here,” Watts said.

“What (he) has been able to do is educate the students and give them the skills that they need that they would not get otherwise in the school environment,” she said.