A Mentor’s Journey through PGC 2023

by | May 10, 2024 | Education, Environment, Food, Justice

After a triumphant showcase of their Climate Action Projects and a heartfelt celebration of the diligent efforts of our 2023 cohort, Project Green Challenge has wrapped up its 13th year of molding the next generation of climate leaders. A highlight of this journey is the opportunity to reconnect with past finalists, winners, and members of the ever-expanding Turning Green Family, season after season. Many of our finalists return to PGC as mentors, illustrating the lasting impact of this transformative journey. Among them is Missy Martin, the 2015 PGC winner, who has faithfully returned each year to guide students on their paths. For example, in 2021, Missy mentored Promise Ikem-Nwosu, a student at Nigerian Maritime University, on an ocean conservation project in the Niger Delta region. In 2022, she mentored Elma Jashim, a student at Belmont University, on implementing an environmental justice curriculum at the school’s new medical school. We deeply appreciate her invaluable wisdom and mentorship, as well as her dedication to meaningful environmental work. In this post, Missy shares her recent experience mentoring Sao Mai, the 3rd place winner of PGC 2023.


Lessons Learned from Global Mentorship in Climate Justice


For the past 8 years, I have mentored the most amazing and passionate students from around the globe for Turning Green’s sustainability competition,
Project Green Challenge (PGC). Out of thousands of students, only 12-16 are selected as finalists to work on their own large-scale, high-impact CAPs (Climate Action Projects), and it is with these innovative projects that I help students ideate, plan, and execute their goals for solving some of the world’s most pressing climate challenges.

This year I worked with third place winner and powerful food advocate, Sao Mai, a high school student from the international PGC team – 50 Shades of Green – in Naucalpan de Juárez, Mexico. As a sustainability professional who is passionate about food systems, I was inspired by her idea for an ambitious agricultural-based CAP called “Creciendo Raíces,” or “Growing Roots.” This project focused on providing Frida Kahlo Secondary School in the village of Raíces with temperature-resilient blueberry trees, helping with food security through healthier school breakfasts and food literacy through hands-on nutritional education. 

Raíces is particularly special because of its backstory. Situated on top of the large Xinantecatl volcano, the village faces extreme temperatures linked to climate change. Only a few foods can grow at these new temperatures, leading to a heavy reliance on oats and potatoes and exposing the community to significant food insecurity. Sao Mai and her team quickly recognized the intersection of climate change and social justice and were dedicated to addressing the issue, understanding that lower-income communities, like Raíces, will disproportionately suffer from the adverse effects of climate change. 

Over the course of 5 months, I worked closely with Sao Mai, providing mentorship around project management, strategic planning, and communications trainings to support her blueberry tree project and its completion. I was very impressed not only by her commitment to accomplishing her CAP but her ability to overcome challenges. Here are some lessons we learned:


Collaboration is key.

The biggest challenge Sao Mai faced was raising a large amount of money – 30,000mxn or $1,800 – for the blueberry trees and the biologist-recommended materials for their continued care. To raise this money, Sao Mai involved her whole community and cultivated strong relationships along the way, collaborating with parents, teachers, and other students to host not just 1 but 5 fundraising events. From planning a bake sale and selling natural balms at an entrepreneurial fair to running charity football and volleyball tournaments, Sao Mai found creative ways to partner with multiple groups, resulting in not only meeting her financial goal but sparking passionate advocates for her project.

2. Be prepared.

 Another challenge Sao Mai faced was language and age barriers. Her school, Greengates School, is an international school with families from all different backgrounds and who speak many different languages. In addition, the school serves students from elementary school to high school, teaching a wide range of ages. Therefore, Sao Mai had to think strategically to effectively communicate her project and garner support from a diverse population.

Her solution? Create beautiful and engaging handouts with easy-to-understand visuals. She did not rely solely on talking to people at fundraising events but came prepared with resources to supplement her project pitch, effectively onboarding numerous people to her cause.

3. Ensure long-term impact.

I think the most important lesson learned was to go beyond the immediate successes of the project and find ways to ensure long-term impact. Sao Mai excelled in this area.

Once Sao Mai met her financial goal, she sought out expert advice from a biologist to make sure the blueberry trees would survive into the future and grow resiliently despite Raíces’ extreme temperatures. She also worked with community members to figure out a clear method for using the trees. They agreed that the blueberries would be incorporated into making healthier school breakfasts, and the trees’ care would be added to the school curriculum, teaching about nutrition and sustainable practices.


For the actual tree planting day, Sao Mai partnered with another group to paint the school’s cafeteria, going beyond her original CAP and creating a better space for where the students would be eating the new fruit. To Sao Mai, this project wasn’t about checking off boxes but about truly making a better food environment.

Now, with the momentum of successfully completing her CAP, she wants to keep working on sustainability projects. Currently, at Greengates, she is collaborating with the Garden Restoration Club to install a composter, decreasing food waste. In Raíces, she is planning on installing a rainwater capture system and greenhouses, building on the foundation she created with her CAP and furthering her positive impact. I’m so impressed by Sao Mai as well as every finalist I have worked with before her. Their tenacity, creativity, thoughtfulness, and passion for not only their CAPs but their work beyond their CAPs is inspiring. This group of students is unlike any other, and every year I feel so honored to support their sustainability dreams.


  • Missy Martin

    Missy Martin is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Sapien Network, focusing on areas such as novel regenerative business models, social impact through blockchain, and DeSci. She graduated from UC Berkeley with highest distinction where she studied Society and Environment with a concentration in US Environmental Policy and Management. Missy is a long-time Turning Green supporter. She won PGC in 2015, interned for two years, and worked for a year as the organization’s Director of Happiness.