By USAgNet


In celebration of Earth Week, the Environmental Resilience Institute, founded as part of Indiana University’s Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge initiative, is recognizing 10 Indiana residents as Hoosier Resilience Heroes.

While traveling the state as the Environmental Resilience Institute’s assistant director of policy and implementation, Janet McCabe has met many Hoosiers dedicated to preparing Indiana for environmental change. The Hoosier Resilience Heroes recognition honors the important contributions of just a few of these residents.

“Indiana is full of individuals — in every corner of the state and from every age and walk of life, including government, academia, business and nonprofits — who are working to make Indiana more resilient in the face of environmental change, and who are making Indiana residents safer and healthier now and for generations to come,” said McCabe, former acting assistant administrator for air quality with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We are thrilled to recognize these Hoosier Resilience Heroes and lift up their work to inspire us all.”

These 10 individuals are:

– Dr. Shikha Bhattacharyya is a social entrepreneur who founded reTHink, Inc. to create awareness about trash and other sustainability issues in Terre Haute. The organization offers education and support to local businesses to reduce the amount of trash that is sent to landfills. In addition to offering composting services in Terre Haute, reTHink, Inc. has established three community gardens in the Ryves neighborhood to introduce children to harvesting food. The gardens incorporate art into the landscape and one location features a custom-made shelter with a rain harvesting system. reTHink also operates Super Diggers Salsa Club, a children’s club where children grow food in the garden and then use them to make different kinds of salsa. Dr. Bhattacharyya also organizes an eco-fashion show called Replay Runway, in which local celebrities model costumes made from recyclables to help raise funds for the organization. This year’s Replay Runway is being organized on April 27th and tickets/more information can be found at

– Jessica Davis is the director of the IUPUI Office of Sustainability. As director, she provides leadership and acts as an organizational strategist for sustainability, collaborating across the campus community to integrate sustainability into curriculum, research, and operations to promote an instinctive culture of sustainability at IUPUI. She has helped implement a new, desk-side recycling program in IUPUI buildings; encourages energy efficiency through audits, energy challenges, and building retrofits; and works with campus landscape personnel to move towards more sustainable landscape practices. Davis has supported the City of Indianapolis’ resilience planning process through a partnership on the Indianapolis Sustainability Summit. Furthermore, Davis initiated and held the first successful zero-waste athletic event in Indiana — the 2016 Olympic Dive Trials held at the IUPUI Natatorium — with a 93% waste diversion rate, earning IUPUI the Environmental Innovator of the Year Award from the Green Sports Alliance.

– John Gibson has worked for decades bringing information, resources and encouragement to cities and towns across the state. Earth Charter Indiana–which he was instrumental in creating–has had a massive impact. The organization hosts an annual Climate Leaders’ Summit for Mayors and their staff, has facilitated the municipal council adoption of three youth-led climate resolutions, runs Climate Camps, published a book on sustainability initiatives in Indiana, has planted hundreds of trees, and so much more. Gibson pours his heart, soul, brain, time and treasure into this work, inspiring many others, of all ages and backgrounds, to contribute their own gifts to protecting Hoosier health, communities, and our precious environment.

– Since she was in middle school, Julia McKenna has been working to make her hometown of South Bend ready for climate change — both socially and politically. McKenna serves on the City of South Bend’s Green Ribbon Commission, an entity created by former Mayor Steve Luecke to make program recommendations that help reduce the community’s carbon footprint. McKenna founded the South Bend Climate Champions, an environmental activist group, to rally around passing climate legislation in South Bend. She also helped found the Robinson Community Learning Center’s Climate Change Club, which is working with the South Bend Common Council and South Bend Climate Champions to pass a climate change recovery ordinance, an effort that would make South Bend the second U.S. city to have such legislation. Between organizing rallies, attending meetings, presenting to City officials, and running various environmental social media pages, McKenna has secured a reputation around South Bend as “that one sustainability activist who can’t attend any meetings during the school day.

– As a civically engaged Hoosier and a scholar in environmental science, Iris O’Donnell Bellisario’s pursuit of sharing the effects of climate change with her peers and the community is becoming a reality. As an intern with the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, O’Donnell Bellisario works with scientists and environmental impact groups throughout Indiana. Her philosophy is to breathe the message of climate change preparedness and response into everything she does. She is a vegan, advocates for animals and animal rights, and strives for daily behavioral changes that can help the planet. O’Donnell Bellisario is also working on a climate resolution for the City of West Lafayette. She is advocating for the City to conduct a greenhouse gas inventory, and she is developing a plan for the community to achieve carbon neutrality by the date decided upon in the resolution. O’Donnell Bellisario works directly with the mayor of West Lafayette and received enormous support from P.h.D candidate, David Savage at Purdue University. Recently, she was highlighted as a Top 30 Under 30 for the city of West Lafayette.

– Reed Rouch served as the youth representative member on the steering committee of Thrive Indianapolis, the city’s climate change adaptation and resilience planning efforts. He is also on the Resilient Pike committee, which is devoted to taking local action against climate change in Pike Township. The group works with the school board to plant trees and educates the general public about climate related issues. Furthermore, as an intern at Earth Charter Indiana, Rouch teaches youth about the importance of sustainability and the power that young people have to make a difference in their communities and in their world. In the fall, Rouch will continue his education and his engagement with resilience initiatives at Indiana University.

– Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley is the city forester for Goshen, Indiana. In addition to his work revitalizing Goshen’s urban forest with a tree canopy assessment, tree plantings and maintenance coordination, Sawatsky-Kingsley writes a column in his local newspaper, The Goshen News. In his column, “The Naturalized Mid-American,” Sawatsky-Kinsley discusses the value of individual trees and forests, the impacts we are experiencing from climate change, the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment reports, and so much more related to caring for our planet. He serves as the director of the Rieth Interpretive Center where environmental education is provided for many local schools. Together with the Goshen Tree Board, Sawatsky-Kingsley has initiated an urban forest canopy goal to double Goshen’s tree cover from 22% to 45% by 2045. His work is made possible by many dedicated Goshen resident-volunteers who water young trees, plant new trees, participate on the Goshen Tree Board, and staff a non-profit organization, Trees for Goshen. Goshen businesses and organizations also invest in this work. One example is the annual tree donations from the Goshen Hospital Center for Cancer Care. Sawatsky-Kingsley is grateful for the support of city government, and for being mentored in his work by many over the years, especially Don Minter and Sheri Howland.

– Dr. Jennifer Tank, Galla Professor of Biological Sciences, and Director of the Environmental Change Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, focuses her work on understanding the connections between Midwestern agriculture and freshwater. She studies conservation practices, such as cover crops and floodplains, that prevent fertilizer runoff from farm fields, to reduce the negative impacts of excess nutrients on downstream aquatic ecosystems. Dr. Tank works closely with farmers to translate research outcomes for on-the-ground use to help support widespread practice adoption.

– Leah Thill is the senior environmental planner with the Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG), located in north central Indiana. Thill facilitates the implementation of clean energy, clean transportation, and clean air initiatives and supports regional brownfield redevelopment. Prior to this role, Thill served with MACOG as the Technical Advisor for the SolSmart Program, funded by the Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. She guided Nappanee, Goshen, and South Bend on their path towards SolSmart designation, and she launched the volunteer-powered Solarize Northern Indiana initiative which brought 97 new solar installations to the region in 8 months. Thill continues to provide guidance to local solar projects, including successful donor-funded solar projects at a local grocery co-op and soup kitchen, a large installation by Goshen College, and many businesses and individuals.

= Claire Whalen is a Sister of St. Francis with a PhD in Education who has a strong desire to help people in her area of the state understand the climate crisis and ways they can work to mitigate the impacts. In her retirement, she chooses to promote sustainable living on our planet Earth, especially in the food and energy sectors. Known for her work at Michaela Farm and with the Food and Growers Association, Sister Whalen is currently focusing her volunteer efforts on climate change impacts. In 2017 and 2018, she led the Solarize Indiana Southeast initiative, educating residents to install solar; 35 installations were completed at homes and businesses. In addition, Sister Whalen leads the Oldenburg Renewable Energy Commission to study how their community could move quickly to reduce its carbon footprint in the coming decade. This summer, the Commission will complete a greenhouse gas inventory for the town of Oldenburg, IN, through participation in the Environmental Resilience Insitute’s 2019 Resilience Cohort. Furthermore, Sister Whalen regularly advocates for environmental causes to her governmental representatives and encourages others to do the same.

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