As a grade-schooler in Hartland, Wisconsin, Michelle Loke noticed that her younger brother had a fondness for "gumball-machine-type toys" that he'd buy at grocery stores and movie theaters. But it was a TV news story about lead in kids' toys that set off alarm bells in her head.
Three years later, Loke is the winner of a national community service award from Prudential for her work to get lead out of children's toys and jewelry. And this spring, she donated $5,000 of her prize money to the Sierra Club.
Photo by Mark Regan/Mark Regan Photography
Loke's own investigation started as a 7th grade science fair project. She subjected more than 100 gumball-machine toys and jewelry to tests in nitric acid and found that many of them contained lead, which can harm brain development and poison children, sometimes fatally. (A 4-year-old in Minneapolis died from lead poisoning last year after swallowing part of a children's charm bracelet, prompting a Sierra Club lawsuit that resolved successfully this April, compelling the EPA to create a proactive system to lessen children's exposure to lead.)
Test results in hand, Loke wrote to local stores and businesses that sold kids' toys and jewelry, as well as their corporate headquarters, asking them to remove the items from their shelves and from machines. Many of them did so. She then wrote to her state and federal senators and representatives, asking that the law be changed to prohibit the use of lead in children's toys. "Several of them responded, saying they would support such legislation," Loke says.
Local newspapers and TV stations came calling, and "many people in southeastern Wisconsin became aware of the issue due to these stories," Loke says. In the fall of 2005 she applied for a state-level Prudential Spirit of Community Award, which recognizes students in grades 5-12 for exemplary community service. Six months later, Prudential informed her she'd won a silver medallion, a $1,000 prize, and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., with her mom for the national awards competition.
In May 2006, Loke became one of ten recipients of the National Spirit of Community Award, receiving a gold medallion, a $5,000 prize, and an additional $5,000 to give to the charity of her choice. While in D.C., she met with Wisconsin Senators Kohl and Feingold, urging them to support legislation protecting children from toxics in toys. "Senator Feingold helped me get the law changed by writing to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission about my concerns," she says. As a result of the Sierra Club's lawsuit, the EPA will require the commission to exercise greater quality control for all children's products.
In the weeks that followed, newspapers and magazines around the country, including Time, Working Mother, and Girls' Life, ran articles and ads about Prudential's honorees. Back at home, "Nick News" filmed a segment at Loke's high school that aired throughout the month of October on the Nickelodeon TV channel, and she was featured in a yet-to-be-released documentary film as well as in Teen Newsweek, distributed to schools around the country. Meanwhile, she researched potential recipients for her $5,000 gift.
Loke contacted several national organizations, including the National Association of Children's Hospitals & Related Institutions, the American Acadamy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Department of Heath, and Safe Kids. "But the Sierra Club seemed like it would be best able to help spread the word," she says. "I was impressed that they had done so much work to get the law changed and educate the public about lead."
Jessica Frohman, who chairs the Club's national toxics committee, has been Loke's liaison at the Club. "Michelle's gift will help us continue our work to get lead out of toys and other consumer products," she says.
Loke's message is also producing results close to home. "I found out from the Wisconsin Department of Health that because of my work they are focusing on making Wisconsin a lead-free state by 2010," she beams. "They're holding state-level meetings three times a year to work on this, and one local non-profit has already started going around to schools to discuss the topic."
But Loke's goal is to bring about change on a national level. "Ideally," she says, "I'd like to see every state become lead-free and every hospital and doctor inform parents and children about the dangers of lead in their toys and jewelry." Thanks to this young activist's efforts, that goal is a little closer to becoming a reality.
Learn more about what the Sierra Club is doing to protect kids from toxic lead.
Photo by Mark Regan of Mark Regan Photography in Reston, Va. Used with permission of Prudential Financial.