Girl in Action: Cassandra Lin–One Part Cooking Oil, One Part Love
In 2008, Cassandra Lin had a problem to solve. In her small, Northeastern town of Westerly, Rhode Island, the high price of heating oil was preventing some of its residents from staying warm during the cold winter months. When Cassandra and a group of her friends discovered that waste cooking oil can be turned into bio-diesel fuel, they started a charity called TGIF: Turn Grease into Fuel. " With TGIF, Cassandra and her team asked local restaurants and residents to donate their waste cooking oil to help heat people's homes. The plan worked, and three years later, TGIF continues to warm families in impoverished communities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. " Recently, Lin was awarded the 2011 Prudential Spirit of Community Award." She received a cash prize and a trip to Washington D.C." In September, the 13-year-old social entrepreneur spoke with Teen Voices editorial assistant Lindsay McCormack about how a lot of cooking oil and a little ambition caused quite a stir!
Teen Voices (TV): Can you tell our readers about the project for which you were awarded the 2011 Prudential Spirit of Community Award?
Cassandra Lin (CL): My project is called Project TGIF: Turn Grease Into Fuel. It's a sustainable system that collects waste cooking oil from restaurants and residents. We convert that cooking oil into biodiesel fuel, and it's distributed to charities and people who need emergency heating assistance. So far, we've donated more than" " 14,400 gallons of Bioheat to our local charities, which is equivalent to more than " $50,000 in funds. We have 107 restaurants signed up for our program.
TV: Wow! How did you come up with that idea?
CL: Three years ago, when I was in fifth grade, I got together with a group of my friends and we've been working on this project ever since." As people who are passionate about both the environment and our community, we started doing some research online and biodiesel fuel came up. Soon after, we went to an environmental exhibition called Energy Solutions Expo in 2008, and that's where we found out that waste cooking oil can be converted into biodiesel fuel. And things just kind of clicked from there. We wanted to help people, and that answer came through donating bio-fuel to help families without enough heat.
TV: What's the process for getting the grease from restaurants to heat people's homes?
CL:" First, our contractors take the grease from each restaurant, pumping it out from the recycling bins. Then they take it to their facility where it's turned into biodiesel fuel by a process known as transesterification. In that process, they add methanol and lye to the grease. After it settles, they heat it up, stir it, and get methyl ester, which is biodiesel and the by-product glycerol (glycerol is used in a lot of cosmetic products). Then, another contractor picks up biodiesel fuel and distributes that to the charities that we work with.
" TV: Who are the contractors that you work with?
CL: We work with a grease collector/biodiesel refiner called Newport Biodiesel. We also work with Guardian Fuel & Energy, which distributes the heat. Guardian Fuel has a big truck, and they pump the fuel into people's homes. Then we work with four charities to distribute the heat to people's homes.
TV: What were some of the biggest challenges that you came up with in trying to implement this idea?
CL:" " One of the main problems was when, at the beginning of the project, a lot of restaurants didn't want to sign up with our program because they thought, "Oh, you're just kids. Why should I trust you?" But after a while we started to gain more credibility, and those restaurants started to trust us more. We could point to our list and say, "Hey look, we have 30 restaurants participating, would you like to be another?" We could show them all of the benefits of our program. For example, we might put an ad in the newspaper thanking them, or give them a table stand that says, "You're eating at a green facility," things like that. So, over the past few years, the number of restaurants has just kept growing.
TV:" Did you ever feel like this project was too overwhelming? Did you ever feel like giving up?
CL: I don't think we ever considered just shutting the whole system down. You just have to work through the obstacles or find a different way around them. Things ended up working for us when we decided to approach the restaurants in a different way. Instead of just showing up and saying, "Hi, can we please talk with the manager or owner?" We would check first, call them, and see what time we could set up an appointment. We also had a short five-minute video ready. A lot of people we talked to would say, "I'm really busy right now," and we would say, "Well, could you spare five minutes?" The video is really quick, and probably explains our project better and faster than we could ourselves. And we would just keep following up, getting as many restaurants to sign on as we could.
TV: The five-minute video that you mentioned, did your group make that for TGIF?
We made the video [about TGIF] in 2009 when I was preparing to go to a conference in Korea. With the help of my brother, Alex, we filmed and edited the video. We filmed some of the clips as part of an MTV documentary that was made about TGIF in 2009.
TV: As you have been doing the project, has there been anything that surprised you?
CL: We've had a LOT of generous people during this project, and that surprised me in a good way." I felt like we were actually making an impact in the community because people would be so generous. There were some [restaurants] that would switch into our program and be like, "I think this is a great idea; keep doing what you're doing." So that has been a boost for us, and it has been kind of surprising!
TV: Can you talk a little about winning the Prudential Spirit of Community Award? What was that experience like?
CL: That experience was awesome! My parents and I got to go down to Washington D.C. for the award, and it was the most amazing experience. We got to meet all of the other winners from all of the other states. (There were two people from each state, one middle school student and one high school level honoree). We got to meet with Susan Sarandon, as well as Kiki Palmer, who gave the keynote speech. And that was pretty cool, I have to say." Also, when I was named one of the Top Ten National Honorees," I was definitely surprised!" I was caught off guard and never expected to win such a prestigious award.
TV: Were you nervous when you met them?
CL: Actually, not really! Susan Sarandon gave this whole speech before we met her, and we got to talk to her. She stayed for more than three hours to talk to every single honoree, which I thought was great.
TV: So speaking of influential people, who has really inspired you?
CL: My parents have always been a good guide to boost my morale and help me through everything. Also, one of my role models is Taylor Swift. I love her music and the messages that she sends to young girls about being confident and loving who you are. I definitely look up to her.
TV: How has helping others who are less fortunate changed you, or changed the way that you live your life?
CL:" After doing this program, I've definitely felt more conscious of those who are less fortunate than me. I've learned a lot from them and from this experience. During a documentary we filmed about the" project," we got to go to the home of one of the recipients. That family received 100 gallons of Bioheat. Watching the news crew interview them and seeing how grateful they were was a really great experience. I was able to see firsthand the impact that we were making. So yeah, that's definitely changed me.
TV: What has been the most rewarding part of doing this project?
CL: The most rewarding part of this, for me, has not been meeting a lot of famous people and going on trips "“even though those things are nice! Many of the people that we donate the " biofuel to are people in my own community, maybe their kids go to my school or I know them. I live in a small town in Rhode Island where everyone knows each other, so it's been a good bonding experience. And we know that we're making a difference! It's not just, "Oh yeah, we've donated this; we've donated that to some charity." We see the effects firsthand and know that we're helping people in our own town.
TV: You're only 13 years old! What do you want to be when you grow up?
CL: I don't really know what I want to be when I grow up, but I definitely want to continue being a social entrepreneur with my community service work. But as a profession? Hmmthat's a hard one.
TV: When I say the word science, what comes to mind?
CL: For me? When you say "science," I think of a lot of different types of science that we're used to hearing about, like technology, biology, and chemistry.
TV: Do you think of this project of yours as science?
CL: Yeah, definitely. In January of last year, we made that biodiesel fuel ourselves! We converted it from waste cooking oil. That was a cool process, and definitely science. Mixing the methanol, stirring the flask, and actually seeing the conversion process and the by-products was like a giant science experiment.
TV: Have you always liked science in school? Did this experiment change the way that you view science in some way?
CL:" I've always liked science, but after this first-hand experience that actually dealt with science, my interest has definitely peaked. I really enjoy science now. We've done a lot of cool stuff [in school] and I think one of the main things is having a good teacher. I've always believed that if you have a good teacher in anything, you can be interested in the subject.
TV: Do you think of yourself as a scientist? Why or why not?
CL: Myself as a scientist? HmmmI don't know! With this project yes, science is involved, but I don't think of myself as a scientist. I think of myself more as the social entrepreneur, the coordinator of the whole thing.
TV: Any advice for our teen readers who want to get involved in community service?
CL: If you want to get involved in your own community, I think you should start with extremely small steps, maybe even just baby steps. You can volunteer at an animal shelter or somewhere with a food pantry. Just take small steps that you can accomplish and move up from there. Then maybe you can start your own club, where you have a group of volunteers and you can go out and do fundraisers for a charity or a cause. They don't have to be huge things, but you should definitely have your goals straight and have them within your reach. So you should set objectives that you can accomplish and feel proud of what you do.
To see a video of Cassandra's project, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrCgtUzfIt4&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL
To apply for a The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, submit your application by November 1, 2011.
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