“A Really Awesome Idea”: Philanthropy gets an early start
Story by Eric Geringas
PHILANTHROPIC GIFTS to the University come from many places—ranging from the estates of elderly alumni to brand-new graduates in their first career jobs.
But they rarely come from 11-year-olds.
Certainly, such a gift—a $100 donation from twins Oona and Beatrix Cutter—was a first for Chelsea Rochman, in just her second year as an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.
“I was amazed,” she says. “We were kind of taken aback because we’re not a fully formed NGO that people are normally donating to, but we were flattered and excited.”
When you look at Rochman’s work, it’s not hard to understand why it would attract public interest. She is an expert on plastic pollution in water. And her best-known project—for now, run out of her U of T lab—is a plan to bring to the Toronto harbour a googly-eyed, garbage-munching barge called the Trash Wheel, a slow-moving, solarpowered vessel that cleans waterways by sucking up plastics, cigarette butts and other pollutants.
And that’s what got the attention of Oona and Beatrix, daughters of Rochman’s departmental colleague Asher Cutter. One day last winter, his wife, Yee-Fan Sun, found a $100 bill on the sidewalk. Feeling that she couldn’t in good conscience keep the money, she suggested to her daughters that they choose a charity to which to donate it.
“We thought about things to help animals,” says Oona, “like… I forget what it’s called, I think it’s like W-Wsomething. But then we thought that this is really cool since it’s kind of local.”
The twins had actually come up with their own version of the Trash Wheel, which they called the “Whaley Woe.”
“It’s basically an invention that’s like a robot in the form of a whale,” says Oona. “Instead of eating krill, it eats garbage and stuff that’s in the coral reefs.”
So when their dad told them about Rochman’s project, they figured, of course—great minds think alike. “We thought that both of them are really good ideas, and we thought it was really awesome that someone was making a really awesome idea happen,” says Beatrix.
Their mom is thrilled that her unexpected sidewalk find has turned into a valuable lesson in philanthropy. “They’ve learned that it feels good to spend your money on something that’s not necessarily an object,” says Sun.
For Rochman, too, the impact of Oona and Beatrix’s gift goes far beyond the cute factor.
“One of the most important things to us is that this project resonate with the community, and that we can use it to engage the community about waste and materials management. And when two 11-year-old girls express interest in our project, it’s a great sign for us that the community will be listening.”
TOP: The Baltimore Trash Wheel.
BOTTOM: Prof. Asher Cutter with daughters Beatrix (left) and Oona.