Teen connects people and turtles

schandler@newsobserver.comMarch 30, 2014 

Molly Paul started Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption after adopting two red-eared sliders herself in 2006. Now, RATA has placed around 100 turtles in Raleigh and far beyond.

COURTESY OF LARA SWANSON

  • Other local honorees

    The other N.C. state honoree for the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is Leanne Joyce of Chapel Hill, who was featured on the Thumbs Up page in October for her Positive Impact for Kids project that raises money to buy gifts for hospitalized children.

    Rachel Hopkins of Raleigh, featured in 2011, was named a distinguished finalist for her work to establish a state “Save the Frogs Day.”

  • More online

    Visit Molly’s Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption website, raleighaquaticturtleadoption.com, to learn more about adopting a turtle, buying her soaps or taking her pledge to “leave nature in nature,” support environmental education and more.

    To learn more about the STEM leadership camp she designed, visit tinyurl.com/kjojlc9.

When she was in early elementary school, Molly Paul of Raleigh wanted to upgrade from pet fish to a pet turtle, so she and her family decided to see what they could find on Craigslist. They found pages and pages of listings, and Molly got to wondering why.

Turns out, people buy adorable baby turtles at the beach on a whim and soon regret that decision when the turtle, often an invasive species called a red-eared slider, grows bigger and requires a large tank and some thoughtful care.

“So I was like, if there’s a whole population of people buying these turtles, wanting this pet turtle, and a whole group of people not wanting their turtle, it kind of makes sense to just connect the two,” said Molly, now 15 and a sophomore at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh.

She launched Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption, a rehab and placement service through which she has found homes for around 100 turtles to date. Her work with RATA, and to increase turtle and conservation awareness in general, was recently honored by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, which named her one of two top youth volunteers in North Carolina. As a state honoree, she won $1,000 and a free trip to Washington, D.C., in May, when the top 10 youth volunteers in the nation will be revealed.

At home, Molly cares for turtles that people turn over to herin tanks that fill a spare bedroom and in a pond in the backyard as they wait for new homes. When someone does get in touch looking for a turtle to adopt, Molly is happy to hand over a new friend – and some education.

“Every single person that comes to me –you’re giving me one, you’re getting one – you get a whole little spiel about how to properly take care of one, why it’s important to do that, what the environmental consequences are of releasing one, besides just it’s illegal,” she said.

The trouble is not everyone makes an effort to find a new home for an unwanted turtle. Lots of people just dump them into the nearest pond, which on a large scale has disastrous effects. The turtles, far outside their native homeland in Texas and the southern Midwest, spread diseases, compete for resources and wreak havoc on an ecosystem not built to support them.

Turtles are her main passion, but she extends her considerable energy to many other ecological causes, including parks, aquariums and museums that educate the public about the world around us. To help raise money for such facilities, including the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary, she makes soaps shaped like turtles that have become hot sellers, raising more than $10,000 since 2011 for the places where they’re sold.

Not just turtles

She also has a passion for helping people, particularly her fellow students with an interest in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math. At school, she noticed that while there were plenty of activities to cultivate STEM skills, there wasn’t much emphasis on bringing out those students’ leadership skills, and she saw that her peers didn’t often think of scientists as leaders. So she gathered ideas from several STEM camps she’d attended and prepared a pitch for her own camp, which emphasizes leadership.

She impressed plenty of adults with her ideas, but on her first few tries the organizations she approached bought in – and then got cold feet.

“They actually see you in person and they realize that you’re five feet tall,” Molly said. “You sound like an adult, but you’re not an adult.”

But finally she found a partner in the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, where she has worked as a junior curator and volunteer, and the camp held its first session last year. Another session is scheduled at the museum in July.

The initial setbacks only made Molly more determined, her mother said.

“When she has a goal, it’s going to be met,” Lara Swanson said. “There’s no question about whether it’s going to be met. There may be a question about how is she going to get there, but if she establishes the goal, I guarantee you it’s happening. And she just likes to navigate how that will happen.”

Even before she owned her first turtle, Molly knew the career goal toward which she was navigating: she proclaimed to her family that she wanted to be an aquarium director.

“I think when I said it, at the time, I didn’t really know what it meant,” Molly said. “As I’ve grown to know what it actually means, I still love it!”

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