Haddonfield’s Sustainable Hero

Haddonfield resident Erica DeMichele is the first South Jersey recipient of the Sustainable Jersey for School’s Hero Award.

Erica DeMichele of Haddonfield sits in front of the rain garden at Millbridge Elementary School in Delran on Wednesday, April 12. DeMichele, the Delran Township School District K-12 Supervisor for Science, Technology, Engineering, Food and Consumer Science and Sustainability, is the first South Jersey recipient of the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Hero Award.

Green living has always been a part of Haddonfield resident Erica DeMichele’s life. Growing up on a farm on Rhode Island, DeMichele was constantly spending time in nature and developed an appreciation for the interconnectedness of people and the earth. Her passion paid off years later, as DeMichele has been named the first South Jersey recipient of the Sustainable Jersey for School’s Hero Award.

Through her work spearheading green initiatives, DeMichele, the Delran Township School District K-12 supervisor for science, technology, engineering, food and consumer science and sustainability, is poised to save the Delran Township School District up to $5 million in energy costs and cut the district’s carbon emissions by 85 percent over the next 15 years.

DeMichele is the leader of the Delran District Level Green Team and manages the Sustainable Jersey for Schools certifications applications. She has secured more than $16,000 in grants through Sustainable Jersey, a nonprofit organization that provides training and financial incentives to help schools and municipalities implement green initiatives.

When Christopher Russo, business administrator of the Delran Township School District, first tasked DeMichele with getting Delran schools certified through Sustainable Jersey, he never expected the project to become what it has today.

He said she started by getting small grants, and then she getting teachers and students at the schools involved. Now every school in the district has a green team, and hundreds of students of all ages are getting involved in sustainability efforts.

He said anyone who surrounds DeMichele can’t help but catch on to the atmosphere of sustainability.

“It’s not a job; it’s inherent in her,” Russo said. “It’s something she believes in, and she lives and breathes it.”

For DeMichele, creating a sustainable future starts with children.

“It’s about how we build culture within our children who become citizens to change the practices of our communities,” DeMichele said.

She said the district’s green programs teach children about how to get data-driven results. For instance, if students want to tackle food waste in the cafeterias, they need to know how much money it will take to implement a change and document changes in food waste in pounds. In March, DeMichele challenged Delran schools to participate in “Electricity Challenge Week,” with every school except the high school saving between 20 percent and 70 percent in energy costs.

Through the grants she has secured, DeMichele is also making practical changes. Some of the funds DeMichele raised were used to create a 10,000-gallon rain garden at Millbridge Elementary School. The garden not only remedied a flooding problem on the school’s playground but got every student at the school to dig in the dirt and plant something in the garden.

Russo said through her efforts, DeMichele started the first wave of positive feelings toward the district going green. Now the district is implementing a $4.5 million capital improvement project that will have the district taking on more than a dozen energy conservation measures, including new air conditioning units, improved lighting and roof-top solar panels that will produce 75 percent of the district’s energy.

“We’re really affecting a lot of change, and we’re going to save a lot of money in the long run,” DeMichele said.

It’s not just the Delran community that has taken notice of DeMichele’s efforts. As a sustainable expert, DeMichele has been asked to speak at conferences, including an upcoming one at The Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood, and she said people from the surrounding area are coming up to her to ask questions about implementing sustainable initiatives.

As a Haddonfield resident of 10 years, DeMichele said once her daughters enter the public school system, she’ll be excited to see where she can impact her children’s schools — if they want her help.