Natalya Shevchuk: Dancer and environmental advocate

Battleford Town Council is looking at new ways to discourage littering after a presentation by a high school student about how litter harms wildlife.

"Litter is much more than an eyesore. It presents a real threat to wildlife. Litter not only hurts animals, it can kill them," 16-year-old Natalya Shevchuk told councillors recently.

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Natalya is oldest of three children of Jim and Sandra Shevchuk of Battleford. Community involvement, environmental responsibility and preserving Ukrainian culture in Canada are just some of mandates the Shevchuk family observes.

Natalya's interest in environmental responsibility has galvanized her into action.

"Some of us treat our world as a huge trash bin," the young advocate told town councillors.

One of the most insidious forms of litter is the thousands of cigarette butts that can be found nearly everywhere, said the North Battleford Comprehensive High School International Baccalaureate student, and she wants to see a cigarette butt-recycling project set up in Battleford, her hometown.

She recommended a program such as one offered by TerraCycle, an international upcycling and recycling company that repurposes difficult-to-recycle products. The company even pays for the cost of shipping cigarette waste to them for recycling, she said.

Councillors expressed an interest and administration will be looking into the program as well as installing signs in public buildings.

Natalya also asked town council to consider putting up signs around town, because education seems to be the key.

"I recently did a presentation at Battleford Central School and the amount of litter has decreased dramatically since the presentation."

Natalya's presentation is one she has prepared herself as a result of her own interest. She has also presented it at North Battleford city council, in Saskatoon and at the Get To Know Unconference 2015 in Calgary, Alta. in October. This youth-led summit showcases creative, digital and innovative art projects that make a powerful statement about the environment and or present a solution to a current environmental issue.

Natalya, sponsored by the Rotary Club, was among young talent from across North America sharing diverse messages and ideas with a high-profile audience. The program was founded in 1999 by renowned naturalist and painter Robert Bateman and Mary Clark in Kelowna, B.C., with the dream that children would have opportunities to get to know the names of their wild neighbours. 

To town councillors she said, "I need your help to spread my message about not littering, so it won't be a huge issue anymore."

Natalya and her family, mom Sandra, dad Jim, sister Marusia and brother Ivan, as well as a cat and a dog, live in Battleford.

They use no chemicals that can harm animals in their yard, she said. She is fortunate to see in her yard and neighbourhood white-tailed deer, moose, porcupine, sand hill cranes, beaver, hummingbirds and more.

"Years ago, litter was never a problem," said Natalya. "Everybody reused everything and there were no plastics."

Nowadays, we are a fast-paced disposable society and products now are products of convenience, she said. They are easier and cheaper to make and transport, but, unfortunately the real cost is unmistakably higher.

Using information from the TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, Natalya said one in every three Canadians and half of young adults 18-24 admit to littering. Four per cent admit to littering every day.

She said Canadians over 65 are more litter conscientious, with 86 per cent saying they never litter.

When asked what form of litter "makes their blood boil," she said, respondents rated plastic bottles number one, followed by plastic bags, with cigarette butts coming in close at fourth.

She said people often don't perceive cigarette butts as litter, yet they are one of the most harmful to animals through ingestion and to the environment through leaching chemicals into water resources.

Cigarette butts contain nicotine, which is a toxin, she said.

"Once the paper unravels, animals mistake them for food and eat them," said Natalya. "Birds even feed them to their young, who often starve to death with their stomachs full of plastic from the filters."

In Saskatchewan's Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup of 2014 of 39.4 kilometres, said Natalya, the number one item removed was cigarette butts, totalling more than 4,000. Alberta's cleanup, with 130 kilometres cleaned, also saw cigarette butts at number one, totalling 23,000.

Having researched statistics on litter, Natalya became curious about how much litter could be found in her own neighbourhood.

"On the nature trail by my house, I picked up 43 garbage items and 27 cigarette butts in a one kilometre stretch."

At Battleford Central School, the elementary school she used to attend and which her brother still attends, the grounds offered up 253 pieces of garbage and 124 cigarette butts.

"Cigarette butts at an elementary school? That just doesn't seem right," she said.

She added, "At the high school I attend, there is a smoker's bush, the only place you can smoke around the school because it isn't school property."

There, she found 2,000 butts, and she didn't get them all.

"My mom said, 'I am astounded, but I really shouldn't be,'" said Natalya.

She has received word from the City of North Battleford that a receptacle for recycling cigarette waste is to be installed there at her request.

"We all become desensitized to litter all around us. I knew there was litter in my town, but until I started this project I never really realized how much there really was."

Now that she is paying more attention to litter, she says she is horrified by what she sees.

"Ignorance, I believe, plays a big role in why people litter."

Natalya's mother Sandra has been her inspiration to campaign against litter.

"This is the person who got me started on all of this. My mom never lets anyone litter."

Besides cigarette butts, said Natalya, plastic is one of the most harmful items of litter to animals. It strangles them, prevents them from eating, or, if ingested, can be fatal. When the animals dies, the plastic, which does not decompose with the animal remains, returning to the ecosystem to endanger yet more animals.

"Your convenience is their extinction," she said.

Cans, balloons and Chinese lanterns, glass, fishing line and Styrofoam are also real dangers to animals through ingestion, entanglement and entrapment.

To accompany her presentation, Natalya had prepared a Powerpoint slideshow and a statement art piece, a globe created from green and blue litter, with blue representing water and green representing land, to illustrate the global impact of litter.

"Everything on here is litter found in the town, from the exercise ball holding all the litter on top to the cute little bear that was found at a playground," said Natalya.

"It's only a portion of the litter that I found on here," she added, "but the other stuff just wasn't blue and green."

On her globe were examples of harm animals can come to because of litter.

"The poor bear on South America has a jam jar on his head," she pointed out.

A turtle made of wire, tin foil and a mason jar lid was being squished by a plastic six pack carrier. A fish made from a plastic bottle was filled with mainly cigarette butts and other plastics.

"Such cute animals, but such sad fates," said Natalya.

In addition to being an advocate for animals, she loves taking pictures of nature. She entered The Get To Know Contest in 2013 and won with one of her pictures called Reflections, inspired by the old Battleford bridges near her home.

She is probably best known locally as a talented, award-winning Ukrainian dancer. In the 2015 Svoboda Ukrainian Dance Festival she won awards for Outstanding Choreographer – Choreography Classes, Outstanding Female National Duet – 13 to 14 years with her sister Marusia, Outstanding Female Svoboda Dancer 13 and over and Outstanding Svoboda Small Group with Marusia and her brother Ivan. Natalya often dances seven days a week in Battleford and in Saskatoon.

"Dance is my life!" she has been known to say.

She combined her love of dance earlier this year with a wish to help raise funds for the Battlefords Trade and Education Centre's My Community Cares campaign aimed at building a new facility. Wondering what she could do to contribute, the answer seemed obvious. Do what she knows best. Natalya’s germ of an idea inspired an evening of dance, good food, excitement and community service hosted by her family that raised approximately $8,000.

Natalya's dad proudly says his daughter has lofty goals. Once she graduates, she'll probably attend the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon with a view toward becoming a dentist, orthodontist or, perhaps, a lawyer.

While she is there, she will be pursuing her love of Ukrainian dance as well. Her dream is to perform with her dad's former dance company, Pavlychenko.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist

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