Hampton Roads Community Foundation Blog


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Helping the Earth One Tree at a Time
By Adia White / December 12, 2018
Sarah Stermer
Sarah Stermer, a Virginia Wesleyan University freshman, gets ready to plant trees on her campus.
There is a reason Hampton Roads Community Foundation scholarship recipient Sarah Stermer is nicknamed Sarah Sapling. 

Thanks to her, there are 1,225 new native trees growing at Virginia Beach schools this year and 1,850 saplings taking root in Haiti where deforestation is rampant. And, Sarah is just beginning her work to improve the environment by planting trees.

Sarah, a Virginia Wesleyan University freshman, is among 413 students attending college this year with help from Hampton Roads Community Foundation scholarships started by donors from all walks of life. Like Sarah, all of the scholarship recipients are finding their ways to make our world better.

“I am so honored to receive this scholarship,” says Sarah of the Joseph E. and Bertha White Harry Scholarship. Sarah is among 34 Harry Scholars this year at VWU in Virginia Beach and Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

Sarah’s environmental advocacy started during her Kellam High School AP environmental science class where she learned Virginia Beach’s tree canopy was below the national average. To help remedy that, she raised money and engaged schools and other partners to plant trees in 2017 and 2018. She started her environmental crusade by emailing the Virginia Beach mayor about her city’s lack of trees. She was surprised when he met with her and handed her $20 to buy trees.

From there, Sarah secured more trees and funding. She partnered with a farm to plant trees in Haiti and with Virginia Beach schools to plant trees on school grounds. This fall Sarah led the planting of about 50 cypress and sycamore saplings at VWU. 

For Sarah, planting trees lets her take “direct action and promote positive change.” She motivates others by sharing her story. She recently challenged 50 Tidewater Collegiate Academy students “to get mad about a problem you see” and then do something.

Sarah ends her tree talks by drawing her personal superhero Sarah Sapling – a woman with green trees crowning her flowing hair. You can see her drawing here.

“Sarah uses her multi-faceted skills to try and change the world,” says Chris Freeman, her high school AP environmental science teacher. “She is one of a kind and has an amazing gift of making connections and keeping them.”

“Sarah sees the big picture and how she can make a positive impact,” says Dr. Maynard Schaus, VWU’s associate provost and the biology professor she enlisted to help expand her campus’ tree population. “She is truly remarkable.”

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