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Melissa and friends geared up to do what it takes to save Earth

NCR Staff

In the summer of 1989, an episode of the television show “Highway to Heaven” disturbed Melissa Poe in Nashville, Tenn. The 9-year-old saw an angel played by Michael Landon take the viewer 25 years into the future and show what the earth would look like if no solutions to environmental problems were found. The earth was dead, there were no trees, children were dying of cancer.

“It showed the world that was my future, and it was a world I couldn’t survive in,” said Poe, whose family worships at St. Henry Parish in the Nashville diocese.

Landon spoke at the end of the television show, saying it was not too late to change this bleak future. Trish Poe could see that her daughter was upset and encouraged her to deal with those feelings by taking action. But even her mother was amazed by the persistence and dedication Poe showed -- and where her activism would take her. “Believe me, I had no idea,” Trish Poe said.

Now 18, Poe has traveled across the United States and as far as Brazil in her work for the environment. She is the founder of Kids For a Clean Environment or Kids F.A.C.E., a worldwide children’s environmental organization she led for eight years.

After watching the “Highway to Heaven” episode, Poe wrote a letter to then-President George Bush, telling him how concerned she was and asking him to help. The president seemed an ideal choice to spread the word about saving the environment.

“She figured he could get on television any time he wanted,” Trish Poe recalled. “When he didn’t write her back, she decided it was up to her to get people involved.”

The president eventually did reply, Poe said. Several months later, the White House sent a form letter that told her to stay in school and not do drugs. There was no mention of the environment. “At first it made me angry, but then it just made me want to do something more,” she said.

Poe was recycling, planting trees, talking to friends and writing letters to newspapers and politicians -- “just anything to get involved,” she said. She recruited six friends to form Kids F.A.C.E. at Percy Priest Elementary School.

She called billboard companies and convinced them to donate advertising space. By April of 1990, she had 250 billboards with her letter to Bush posted across the United States.

With the billboards, local news coverage of her activities and an appearance on the “Today Show,” Poe began to receive letters from other children asking what they could do. Poe suggested to them that they start their own Kids F.A.C.E. club at school. The result is that Poe’s club has grown from her six friends to 300,000 members in 20 countries. The organization’s newsletter, Kids F.A.C.E. Illustrated, goes out to over 3 million people.

In addition to being an informational resource for Kids F.A.C.E. chapters, the organization has held leadership workshops for children, training them in public speaking and environmental issues. So far they have held about 10 and hope to conduct four a year.

“Kids were the ones that heard the message and they were the ones who responded to the call for help,” said Trish Poe.

Trish Poe gave up her plant leasing business to work for Kids F.A.C.E. Her husband, Pat, was the group’s primary financial supporter in the beginning. Eventually expenses grew beyond the family’s means, and the organization acquired funding from Wal-Mart, still a major sponsor.

In addition to doing the day-to-day work needed to run Kids F.A.C.E., Melissa Poe was increasingly sought after as a speaker. She spoke at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil. “You took a family who rarely even went on vacations, and suddenly the two women in the family are headed off to California, Florida and Brazil!” Trish Poe told NCR.

Adults function in a supportive role in the organization, primarily through membership on the Chalk Board -- so called because the group’s 9-year-old founder couldn’t remember advisory board. Past Chalk Board members have included Michael Landon and then-Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, who was one of the first people to respond to Poe’s letters.

Poe herself will continue to be on the board, but in October 1997, she stepped down as president, handing the reins over to Rachel Jones and Ashley Craw, both 15. Poe said she is too old to lead the organization. “There’s a lot of clubs out there that say they’re run by kids, but that’s not exactly true,” she said.

Poe, a senior at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, thinks she will always be an advocate for environmental causes, but she is not sure she wants to make that a career. Thanks to her many appearances on television, one of her dreams is broadcast journalism, allowing her to turn the tables and be an interviewer. She also has her eye on a political career, with a big ambition: to be president. “And I will always write my letters back right!” she promised.

Meanwhile, she is applying for college next fall and will continue in Kids F.A.C.E. as a mentor for their projects, such as the new “One In a Million” campaign.

“I got the idea when I sent out a Kids F.A.C.E. survey, asking members what they would do to make the world a better place,” Poe said. “So many of them replied, ‘Plant a tree,’ that I decided to start a campaign. Our goal is to get 1 million kids to plant one tree each by the year 2000. If we’re successful, we’ll increase the world population of trees by a million -- perhaps more than a million.”

Kids F.A.C.E.’s newsletter and Web site www.kidsface.org has publicized the campaign, giving members information on how to raise the funds for a tree, where and how to plant it and how to care for it. The One In a Million Project was launched Nov. 3, with Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist planting the first tree at Father Ryan High School.

“Sometimes people think they can’t do much, because they’re only one person,” Poe said. “But we need that one person. When you think in terms of total world population, one in a million becomes a big number. One in a million can make a difference.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 13, 1998