Small But Mighty: The Cleanup Kids

How two nine-year-olds started an environmental conservation organization.

When nine-year olds Ella Grace Rossen and Cash Daniels met in July 2019, they immediately connected. It was at Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, in the bustling halls of the University of British Columbia, and when their moms introduced them, they had no idea that the kids were about to become an environmental-activism powerhouse duo.

“We knew we could make a difference together,” says Cash from his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ella, originally from Ajax, Ont., but now living in Vero Beach, Florida, agrees. “It was pretty much instant best friends.”

Within a short time, their meeting transformed into action, birthing the Cleanup Kids—a youth-led non-profit determined to make waves in environmental conservation.

Ella’s passion for the environment started with an early love of sharks (“My bedtime stories were shark encyclopedias”) and many first-hand encounters of cleaning up trash along the shores of Vero Beach. For Cash, the spark was ignited at just seven years old, when a single plastic straw on the beach caught his eye, symbolizing a much larger issue. That’s when he became aware of the crisis facing thousands of turtles, seabirds and other wildlife, which risk death from consuming discarded plastic.

Now both 14, they meet up in person for the odd sea-turtle release, scuba dive (they’re both certified open-water divers) or conference, but are other- wise “attached at the virtual hip,” co-leading the Cleanup Kids, which now has more than 200 members worldwide and counting.

“My hope for the Cleanup Kids is that it’s not hundreds of kids, it’s thousands of kids who have joined us, and for that to have a ripple effect,” says Ella. Member responsibilities include conducting at least one cleanup per month, documenting and photographing the collected trash, counting every piece to contribute toward the goal of collecting one million pieces of trash by year’s end, and sorting and recycling items.

It’s a lot of work, and it hasn’t gone unrecognized. In 2022, out of more than 700 applicants from across North America, Cash and Ella were chosen as one of 25 projects to receive the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. This annual award recognizes 25 exceptional young leaders between ages eight and 18, primarily from the U.S., who have made a substantial impact both on people and the environment.

How do you even begin to make that impact? Cash’s best advice is to start small. “I started with just a couple cleanups with my family. Don’t overdo it,” he says. “And just remember that kids may be only a small part of the population, but we’re 100 percent of the future.”

Next, read about an Albertan girl crafting dolls to raise money for kids with cancer.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada