Teen Jocelyn Kaelin to help Southold trustees explore environmental issues

When it comes to fighting for the environment, Jocelyn Kaelin not only talks the talk, she walks the walk — in her vegan leather Doc Martens boots.

In addition to taking AP courses, participating in school musicals and running cross country and track, Jocelyn has dedicated much of her high school career to her school’s environmental club. 

Since was named co-president in her junior year, the club has worked to bolster its visibility throughout the school and the community. With roughly 20 members, the club has initiated a sneaker drive to keep old shoes out of landfills and instead send them to those in need. They also started collecting “nurdles,” or microplastics, during beach cleanups to send to the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, which tracks where and how such materials wash ashore. 

“She actually spearheads a lot of the ideas for the environmental club,” said Stephanie Berberich, a Southold science teacher and club adviser. “She looks for projects for us to work on and actually goes through with them, which is something that I don’t see very often. We have all these ideas, but nothing really ever happens. But with Jocelyn heading our environmental club, things actually get done.”

Carol Brown, a member of Southold Town’s Conservation Advisory Council, took notice of Jocelyn’s good work and dedication and invited her to attend CAC meetings.

“She has follow-through and really cares about the town,” Ms. Brown said. “She’s a smart, caring, passionate young woman.”

At the recommendation of Ms. Brown and other members, the Town Board voted last Tuesday to appoint Jocelyn as CAC student representative, two days ahead of her 18th birthday. The committee’s volunteer members have diverse backgrounds and are empowered by local elected officials to advise on the development, management and protection of the town’s natural resources.

“She’s the type of student every school wants in their district,” said Town Board member Brian Mealy, who also serves as the board’s liaison to the CAC. “She’s a high achiever academically, she’s a hard worker and she’s a perfect fit for the CAC and the work we’re doing.”

Among the responsibilities outlined in the Southold CAC’s mission statement is its advisory role to the Town Trustees, who are charged with approving or denying permits for any development within 100 feet of fresh and saltwater wetlands and environmentally sensitive areas, including ponds, creeks, beaches, bluffs, the Peconic Bay and Goldsmith’s Inlet. 

CAC members review each permit application and vote whether to recommend approval to the Town Board. In her new position, Jocelyn will have a vote in this advisory process.

“I’m really excited to get young people involved, especially when it comes to climate change,” said Town Trustee Liz Gillooly, who serves as the Trustees’ liaison to the CAC. “It’s their future.”

Jocelyn’s appointment is the first of its kind in nearly a decade. As per state law, all CACs are allowed to include special appointees between the ages of 16 and 21. Ms. Brown said the last student appointed to the council, which happened before her tenure, did not have an dedicated mentor to guide them or assign specific tasks. This time around, she will serve as Jocelyn’s mentor and said they have already discussed “two or three things” they will work on together.

Ms. Brown said Joceyln will also assist in the town’s efforts to reach bronze status as one of New York State’s Climate Smart Communities, which could also help the town access more grant funds from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to carry out environmental initiatives.

“I’m very passionate about the environmental concerns of our town and our world,” Ms. Brown said. “So having a person to work with who is young, and passionate like me, it’s an excellent way of moving forward.”

Jocelyn, who also works at Southold Pharmacy, was not always particularly passionate about the environment. But during the COVID-19 lockdown, she began spending more time on social media and learned of the huge challenges confronting the environment due to climate change. This inspired her to change her own lifestyle to reduce her carbon footprint, including in her eating habits. 

Much to her family’s shock, Jocelyn became a vegan overnight, , which influences not only her diet, but her fashion choices and waste disposal practices.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot from her,” said her mother, Erin Kaelin. “We compost now, and she’s somewhat influenced the family in that we eat less meat than we did.”

After she graduates in June, Jocelyn plans to pursue a double major of environmental studies and Spanish in college, but has not yet decided where she will enroll.

“Depending on what job I go into, I could have to travel abroad, and speaking Spanish, [so widely spoken] in the world, is pretty important,” she said. “It would be great to communicate with people who are being more affected by these issues, like in South American countries.”

These past few years have opened Jocelyn’s eyes to the environmental concerns people face across the globe, as well as right here in Southold.

“Of course I’m terrified. How could you not be?” Jocelyn said of the climate challenges that lie ahead. “But I’m more hopeful, because if I’m passionate about this and the people in my school and in my town are this passionate, there are people like us all over the world.”