Teen-aged South Miami ‘eco-hero’ rewarded with trip to Machu Picchu

When she saw the tamandua anteater reaching his stubby arms and long snout toward her, Kelsey Peeples knew it was her lucky day.

The 14-year-old South Miami Middle student had been watching the 6:30 a.m. news, waiting for anchor Kristi Krueger and Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill to announce the winner of the “Eco-Hero” contest.

And there they were, at her front door — anteater in tow — making the announcement, with WPLG-ABC 10 news crews capturing the whole thing live.

“You’re the winner!” an exuberant Krueger exclaimed, as Kelsey covered her face with her hands and laughed.

“Oh my God,” the eighth-grader was finally able to say between giggles. “Thank you so much!”

Kelsey beat out more than 400 local middle school students nominated for the Eco-Hero contest.

And her prize is a doozy: Kelsey, accompanied by her mom, Magill, Krueger and a Channel 10 crew will leave July 20 for Peru, where they’ll film a documentary about the Peruvian Amazon and Machu Picchu.

For five days, they’ll tour the rain forest canopy, talk with Peruvians and learn about the environmental challenges facing the Amazon rainforest.

Hence, the presence of “Pinch Bug,” the anteater, whose relatives make their home in the Peruvian rainforest.

Magill created the essay contest 10 years ago as a way to engage students in learning about the environment, and winners have journeyed to far-away places: South Africa, Alaska, the Galapagos, Panama.

“Travel is the kind of education that sticks with you,” Magill said. “It’s indelible. It grounds you.”

But on a recent trip to the Galapagos, Magill saw students giving up their spring break to help out at a recycling plant. He re-wrote the contest rules to reward “Eco-Heroes,” students who have done exceptional work for the environment.

Kelsey helped lead a class science project that used NASA-donated sensors to track the effect of cloud cover on solar radiation, downloading the data and sorting it in a database.

Kelsey and class partner Daniel Crair compiled the results and submitted them to Harvard’s Journal of Emerging Investigators, which publishes middle and high school students’ scientific work and expects to print the teens’ findings in late July, said South Miami Middle science teacher Suzanne Banas.

“Kelsey collected data all summer,” said Karen Peeples, Kelsey’s mother. “We had a time-lapse camera in our backyard and were measuring cloud cover every day.”

Magill selected Kelsey as one of five contest finalists, and WPLG posted her recommendation letter, written by Banas, with the other four on its website, where visitors voted for a winner.

The votes poured in — more than 116,000 of them — and Kelsey got more than 51,000, said Krueger.

At South Miami Middle School on Monday morning, word of Kelsey’s victory spread down the hallways outside of Banas’ class, where Kelsey arranged bulging bags of animal feed for the classroom’s chinchillas, gerbils, skinks and leopard geckos.

Friends ran up to hug Kelsey or to flash a quick grin and a thumbs-up through the open classroom door as they rushed to other classes.

Magill said students like Kelsey have the power to get their peers excited about the environment.

“The idea is that kids are going to come back and tell all of their peers, and get the ball rolling,” he said.

Kids learn more from the experience in a way they never could from a textbook, he said. He’s seen it at Zoo Miami when they see wild animals up close for the first time.

“The looks on these kids’ faces — there’s amazement, this incredible fascination,” he said.

He wants the young people who go on the Eco-Hero trips to experience that, and then share it.

Kelsey said she would.

“Everyone who helped me out, they deserve to go on this trip with me,” she said. “So I’m going to help them experience it as much as possible.”