BRIGHAM CITY -- Heather Winegar found a hobby that helps her connect with nature, stay fit, preserve the environment, and, oh yes, improve the futures of children in Africa.
"It's a win-win-win-win situation," said Winegar, a Bear River City resident and a sophomore at Utah State University's Brigham City campus.
Winegar, 37, collects discarded aluminum cans along rural roadways with daughter Sage, 10, and some of Sage's friends. They recycle the cans, detaching tabs, which she collects for the Ronald McDonald House charity, which prefers just the tabs for the sake of space and cleanliness.
Winegar takes the tab-free cans to a Logan metal salvage business. The recycler writes the payment check to the Samburu Youth Education Fund, which sponsors $300 to $700 scholarships so teens living in Archer's Post, Samburu District, Kenya, can go to high school.
"It's such a little thing for us to do, and it's been such a huge blessing for us," Winegar said. "We feel stronger in body, mind and spirit. It cleans the environment, and we feel a lot more connected to nature and to people living on the other side of the world."
Winegar came up with her recycling for charity idea while taking a class with Adam Beh, who last year was a USU visiting professor. Beh, now working in Africa, then taught Winegar's class in human dimensions of natural resource management.
Beh and colleague Brett Bruyere, who works at Colorado State University, initially went to Kenya to study how rural communities in the Samburu District were dealing with several natural preserves in their area, which tied up grassland. The men decided to help a rural community by raising high school tuition money for teens who would otherwise end their educations with grade school. High school tuition varies by the type of school students are assigned to, which is determined by government testing.
The Samburu Youth Education Fund, which will be a year old in December, has sponsored 17 teens in its first school year, which also ends in December. In January 2012, 15 of those students will start their next school year, and 12 more will begin their first year of high school.
"So we will have 27 kids in school," Bruyere said. "Before the scholarship fund, the town had eight kids in high school."
Bruyere said students are selected in part for their leadership skills in the hope that the knowledge students gain will benefit the entire community.
Winegar began her can quest in September by collecting 911 cans to mark the anniversary of attacks on the World Trade Center. The cans, with tabs removed, earned more than $22 from the recycler. Winegar and her crew have collected and redeemed cans many times since.
"My daughter and her friends love going out," Winegar said. "They have learned to care so much about the environment, animals, nature and what's going on in the world. I know my daughter is more grateful for what she has, for where she lives and the education she is getting."
Winegar, a recreation resource management major, said she would like to raise environmental awareness and do work for a humanitarian cause: "I would love to let people know you can do the smallest things and they can make big changes for the world."
Bruyere said high school education will allow the teens to gain skills and compete for better jobs. Education is an especially rare opportunity for Kenyan girls, he said. Educated girls could help battle their community's problems with early pregnancy and malnutrition, he said.
"The goal is to start addressing major global issues on a small community level," Bruyere said.
"I am so proud of what Heather is doing," he added. "Here's one person who feels empowered, and is contributing to make the planet better. If enough of us felt this way, we could make a big impact."
For information on the Samburu Youth Education Fund, visit http://samburuyouth.com. For more on the Ronald McDonald House can tab collection program, visit http://rmhc.org/how-you-can-help/pop-tab-collections.