Sabrina McManus has always had a love of animals. For as long as she and her family can remember, she wanted to grow up to be a farmer, but now the 10-year-old has her sights set on becoming an environmental lawyer.
At a Morning Program seminar at Sag Harbor Elementary School April 17, the fifth-grader revealed her project Look to Save Animals, a sort of hide-and-seek activity to spread awareness of endangered species, to a room of more than 450 students and parents. For the presentation, she wrote a speech, created a slide show, and clicked through her website that wowed the crowd.
It was a lot of trial and error for Sabrina and her family to find a material — they settled on plaster — that she could create disks to hide along park and beach trails across Southampton Town. With the help of her father Gil, who used to make surfboards, the pair used resin to coat 50 disks that were affixed with cutouts of endangered species to preserve them from the elements. On the back of each is her website, www.looktosaveanimals.com, and a number so seekers can register what they’ve found. Through her “endangered animals” tab, visitors can read facts about the creatures on each disk.
“Kids were saying they want to go out and find disks, so I think this project is already proving to be successful,” Sabrina said, adding that right after school on the day of her presentation, a classmate who recognized a location of a photo in her slide show scoured a local beach to find one. “And this is just the beginning.”
It all started with a letter to Assemblyman Fred Thiele. Back in October, Sabrina’s fifth-grade teacher asked students to write a letter to a government official about something that concerns them. After some research and a visit to the South Fork Natural History Museum & Nature Center, Sabrina wrote to Thiele about the need to protect vernal pools, where the endangered tiger salamander breeds. Receiving a note back made Sabrina feel like she could do something to make a change and sparked her project.
“I was exceedingly impressed to receive Sabrina’s articulate and well-researched letter back in October,” Thiele said. “Her dedication to protecting our environment and admirable spirit of activism are commendable at any age, but in a fifth-grader they are truly exceptional.”
“If we don’t have the right environment, the world won’t be like it is anymore,” Sabrina said. “It’ll be polluted. I don’t want more cities. I think the trails and animals are very important.”
Sabrina’s mother Kate said the family had taken summer trips to Block Island the last few years, and just this past summer met an artist who hides glass orbs in nature trails to promote his work. Having a lot of fun looking for them, Sabrina thought it would be a good way to spread her message. Soon afterward, she approached her mother and said, “Let’s make a website.” McManus explained to her daughter she knew nothing about it. Then there Sabrina was on www.wix.com, building it by herself.
“It’s pretty crazy,” McManus said. “She’s always been an extremely determined kid, and while part of me is not at all surprised that she’s doing this because it’s so up her alley — loving animals and loving nature and just wanting to make a difference — she astonishes us every day with what she comes up with next.”
Sabrina attended a Southampton Trails Preservation Society meeting, where she presented her project and asked for permission to hide her disks along town trails. From there, she went to the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, and on April 22, she visited Shelter Island’s Mashomack Preserve.
“I feel like not all adults get to have that chance,” Sabrina said of displaying her work to these various groups she’s built a network with. “It’s exciting, thrilling to do something that not everyone gets to do regularly. I get to do something I love — researching animals and protecting them — and it makes me happy. I feel really good about myself.”
McManus felt similarly, beaming with pride as she watched the way her daughter presented herself and her project at each one of the meetings.
“I was smiling so much, especially at the first meeting, that my cheeks hurt,” the mother said. “I welled up with pride. Watching her, she’s so mature. It’s been completely remarkable. She could be my role model.”
Now, Sabrina has community members like Southampton Town Councilwoman Julie Lofstad reaching out to her.
“She’s learning so much, and she’s getting a lot out of this project. We all are,” McManus said. “This has become a kind of family project. My 7-year-old daughter Violet picks out colors and helps hide disks. I think it’s inspired all of us. I have to say I enjoy hiding the disks with her, too.”
At the end of her presentation Wednesday, the one word Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone could come up with to convey how he felt was “impressed.”
“Sabrina worked extremely hard developing her project,” he said. “I was so impressed with her care, initiative, and commitment.”
The student even asked his secretary to set up a meeting so she could ask his permission to share her idea. Malone said his answer was “a resounding ‘yes.’” At the assembly, Sabrina walked out on stage to present while students sang “What can one little person do to help this world go ’round? One can help another one, and together we can get the job done” from the children’s song “What Can One Little Person Do?” by Sally Rogers.
“Sabrina is such a beautiful example of this powerful concept,” Malone said. “As Sabrina spoke at Morning Program, you could see how her energy and passion was creating excitement for all our students. I think many will be asking their families to begin exploring our local trails to be a part of this wonderful project.”
To date, four disks have been found within the two-week span of them being hidden. To continue to share her message and garner interest, Sabrina will have her very own table at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center’s Earth Day celebration Saturday, April 27, from 10 AM to 3 PM. You can find her sporting a new Look to Save Animals T-shirt and handing out business cards with her new logo. She will be showing an extended version of her slide show from the Morning Program presentation.
“I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still learning a lot,” Sabrina said. “I’m hoping to continue to spread awareness, and get others to go out and learn. It’s taken a lot of time from when I made my first prototype last winter, but I’m proud of myself for doing this, especially because I’m succeeding. And as long as there’s interest, I’m inspired to keep it going.”