DOWNTOWN — Megan Kilroy’s favorite place to go in town is the Santa Monica Pier. She thinks its crowded and touristy, but she loves looking out over the edge and watching the waves crash against the pillars.
But when she sees a plastic bag floating in the water, her heart breaks a little bit.
“I was just so mad, I just wanted to dive right in and get it,” she recalled of one instance. “That made me really, really upset.”
Kilroy, a 17-year-old Santa Monica resident, has been nationally recognized for her environmentalist work to protect the oceans, recently winning an award for California teenagers who have exhibited outstanding leadership. Friends and family describe Kilroy as a role model whose passion for helping the environment is inspiring.
Kilroy’s passion for the environment is rooted in her lifelong love of the beach. Her father is a lifeguard, so as a child she spent much time at the beach in Santa Monica. But as time passed, she noticed more and more trash littering the beach.
In her 11th grade biology class at Santa Monica High School, she learned exactly how much plastic is polluting the ocean — marine debris, 90 percent of which is plastic, kills more than one million marine animals every year, according to Team Marine’s website. So Kilroy decided to join Team Marine, an organization at Samohi that aims to spread awareness about global marine debris such as single-use plastic bags. This past year, Kilroy served as the team captain for Team Marine.
As a member and captain of Team Marine, Kilroy has worked to rally Santa Monica to ban single-use plastic bags. One of the moments on Team Marine that has stood out for her and her friends was when she helped build a solar-powered boat for the 2009 Solar Cup, an annual competition where high school students build and race solar-powered crafts.
“It was difficult at first because we were all on the same page of not knowing what to do,” said Valerie Wacker, one of Kilroy’s friends and teammates.
Outside of environmental work, she considers herself a huge movie and television buff and has taken up an interest in photography. Her television and movie interest is being fed this summer with an internship at Fox Broadcasting, where she has the opportunity to read and comment on scripts.
Her environmental activism, specifically that with Team Marine, has earned her a couple of awards. In December, Kilroy won the TeenNick HALO award, where she was surprised with a $10,000 college scholarship and a $10,000 donation for Team Marine presented by singer Nick Cannon and actress Hayden Panettiere.
Most recently, Kilroy won the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award in June. The $36,000 award is given to five California teenagers who embody Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller’s vision of “Tikkun Olam,” Hebrew for repairing the world through passion, perseverance and dedication. Kilroy said she will use the money partially to help pay for college and partially to support Team Marine.
Though Kilroy is one of five award winners, Phyllis Cook, a philanthropic consultant with the Helen Diller Family Foundation who helped read the award applications, said Kilroy stands out from the rest of winners.
“Some of the projects applicants do don’t have a direct impact, but Megan’s have a tremendous impact,” Cook said. “There’s one thing she did — she called it ‘First Flush’ — where after the first rain of the season, she and her friends went down to the ocean and documented all the debris and tried to clean it up. Identifying a problem and finding a way to solve it are two different skill sets.”
Additionally, one of the purposes of the award is to spotlight teens who make a difference to encourage other teens to do the same, but Kilroy has already demonstrated the ability to rouse others into action, Cook said.
Wacker said she agrees Kilroy has an uncanny ability to inspire others. While Wacker was interested in helping the environment before she met Kilroy, Wacker said her involvement and interest have grown exponentially since meeting Kilroy.
Kilroy’s teacher and Team Marine coach, Benjamin Kay, echoed those sentiments, adding that Kilroy also has an exceptionally high retention rate and ability to analyze facts compared to a typical high school student.
“One time toward the end of the school year, we took a field trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific. At the end I gave a little quiz, and Megan got the most right. She answered 43 questions right on taxonomy,” Kay said.
Like everyone, though, Kilroy is not without her flaws. She counts her biggest flaw as being too hard on herself, a trait which Wacker said she too notices.
When Team Marine was participating in the 2009-2010 QuikSCience Challenge, an annual competition hosted by the University of Southern California where teams create presentations on ocean science, the team assembled a 40-page binder they dubbed Poseidon that held lesson plans, research and other elements of the project, which focused on marine debris and effects of global warming. About 10 minutes before the team had to leave to present the project, Kilroy noticed some pages were out of order, and she became “panicky,” Wacker recalled.
“We had to calm her down and tell her, ‘We just have to look through it,’” Wacker said.
But Kay said Kilroy’s desire to get everything perfect is more a benefit than a flaw as it shows how much she cares.
“We’re all our own worst critic,” he said. “She does like to get things right and please people. She cares about what people think because she’s sensitive, which is one of the biggest aspects you can have. She cares about all life, especially those in the ocean.”
In the fall, Kilroy will be attending Pitzer College. She plans to create her own major combining environmental studies and media studies, a plan fueled by her dream to one day own a production company that makes films to educate people how to be more environmentally friendly.
“Team Marine has really been able to spread its message through the media, so I want to be able to provide that to other kids, as well,” she said. “How one person or a group of people can make a difference, is what I truly believe in.”