SCARBOROUGH — Early in his high school career, Ryan O’Leary became aware of how complicit people were with the knowledge of climate change.

The environmental crisis, he said, is acknowledged by many, but most won’t take responsibility.

It was this thought process that led to him to desire a career in environmental sustainability, activism and awareness.

“We need to shift our focus on climate change topics to hold businesses and government accountable,” he said. “We need to raise awareness for this epidemic.”

O’Leary, who will join his peers at graduation Sunday, June 9, at 7 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, plans to take a gap year to travel before attending the University of Vermont in 2020.

First, he will head to California for a couple days of vacation, and then he’s off to Costa Rica to participate in a volunteer program. He will spend the bulk of his gap year in a work exchange program in Hawaii, where he will be employed at organic farms.

He said one of his biggest interests in the environmental movement is sustainable food production, and this opportunity will give him a chance to more fully explore those interests.

“When I first started school, I had put a very big focus on competitive swimming, and as my interest in climate work evolved, I came to a point where I had to choose where I put my focus,” he said. “I realized that environmental work is more important than sports or any other activity because of the urgency of the issue.”

He said his interest first blossomed at the end of his freshman year, when he became an active participant in the Environmental Club of Scarborough and served as president in 11th and 12th grade.

During high school, he also served in student government, was a member of the National Honor Society, participated in Key Club all four years and worked several jobs.

O’Leary formed the Maine Youth Environmental Association, a collaboration of high school youth, to address environmental issues/concerns. The group has held summits, provided educational programming and become an umbrella organization in southern Maine for high school students.

“I was first awakened to the issue through ECOS, when I started seeing the environmental issues Maine and Scarborough face,” he said. “I saw that we had no connection to other youth activists in the area, so I started the organization because I wanted to build a stronger coalition for students fighting for environmental justice.”

He also spearheaded multiple initiatives in the school community. He assisted in proposing, organizing and spearheading the first school garden and fruit tree grove. He worked toward the first solar installation project at the high school and attended the Citizen Climate Lobby’s International Lobby Day, serving as a delegate.

He said one of his biggest inspirations to embark on this career path is U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who serves New York’s 14th Congressional District. He said she may be viewed as a controversial politician, but he believes she has a strong grasp on what needs to be done to mitigate climate change.

“She’s really pushing the movement in the right direction and changing people’s minds,” he said. “That’s what it is going to take to show people the importance of living sustainably as a country.”

As his time in high school comes to a close, O’Leary continues to ponder what his future looks like. He said any career that highlights the stories of people on the front lines of climate change would be a good choice for him.

“I want to believe I have a personality of someone who wants to help out or do community service work,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve tried to accomplish in high school. I don’t know where my career path will take me, but I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Krysteana Scribner can be reached at [email protected] or 780-9094. Follow her on Twitter: @krysteana2016.

Scarborough High School senior Ryan O’Leary in the school’s courtyard garden. O’Leary, who graduates June 9, helped establish the 1,000-square-foot organic garden during his sophomore year.

Ryan O’Leary, center, marches with the Maine Youth Environmental Association in Portland for the international “RISE for Climate Justice March” in 2018. O’Leary, who graduates from Scarborough High School June 9, plans to make climate change the focus of his career.

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