By Kelley Atkinson
Lily McCallister may be just a 13-year-old eighth grader, but she is doing great things already. McCallister was named one of Maryland’s top youth volunteers of 2021 by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards—thanks to her work in oyster restoration. She will receive a $2,500 scholarship, a silver medallion, and an invitation to the program’s virtual national recognition celebration in April.
From there, 10 of the 102 state honorees will be named America’s top youth volunteers of the year. Winners will receive another $5,000 scholarship, a gold medallion, a crystal trophy, and a $5,000 grant for a non-profit charitable organization of their choice.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is conducted annually by Prudential Financial with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). McCallister was selected because of her volunteer work in her community. The selection process considers impact, effort, initiative and the personal growth demonstrated over the course of the project.
Two years ago, McCallister learned about pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay and realized she had to help. “In science class, we had learned about pollutants in our Bay and the topic of oysters being natural filters intrigued my interest,” McCallister said. She also needed a service project to fulfill her Girl Scout silver award requirements. “I thought of doing an oyster restoration, so I researched more about oysters.”
With the help of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, the Magothy River Association, and her Girl Scout troop, McCallister put oyster shells set with spat into the water at two different marinas. The Oyster Recovery Partnership supplied the oysters and the Magothy River Association helped to set up the cages. Every week at the marinas, McCallister and her volunteers shook the cages so the baby oysters wouldn’t be covered in muck. She was dedicated through any weather, caring for the oysters rain or shine.
After the season of growing, it was time to move the oysters into the wild. Transporting the now-grown oysters to a protected reef was the next step. Brad Knoff, a volunteer at MRA, was a mentor to McCallister during this time. “He’s the one who got me and my Girl Scout troop started, he taught us everything,” she said. McCallister said her favorite part was dumping the oysters in the protected reef with her best friend. “That moment felt like all my hard work would actually serve for the health of the Bay. I will cherish that moment forever.” She says it was also the most shocking piece of the project: She didn’t realize that to put the oysters in the reef, all she had to do was throw them overboard.
McCallister’s devotion to science started when she was very young. When asked about her love of science, she talked about her mom’s influence as a seventh-grade science teacher and Girl Scouts leader. “She got me and my sister interested in it because she would always get us involved. She’s really made an impact on me with science.”
McCallister’s mother created a “crime lab” for them to investigate and look at evidence under a microscope and over quarantine they even made elaborate Rube Goldberg machine-style contraptions together. “She would bring in lab supplies as part of our Halloween party. One year, we had ‘elephant toothpaste’ oozing out of pumpkins. She always encouraged me to do science fair projects. I won my first county science fair in 3rd grade with my art robot.”
McCallister says she is honored to win the Prudential Spirit of Community Award. She entered herself, going through a lot of paperwork to get there. She says she looks forward to taking science and environmental classes in high school. But she is unsure of what kind of career they will lead her to, saying she will “see where that leads my interest.”
McCallister says her work will not stop here, as she is determined to continue her work in the Chesapeake Bay. “I don’t think I will maybe ever stop. I think I will always come back to these marinas and shake them [the cages].”
Writer Kelley Atkinson is a high school junior at Annapolis Area Christian School.