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THE BOOK SHELF: Stella Bowles being the change in new book My River

Author Stella Bowles.

Everywhere I look these days — whether it’s painted in a university stairwell, posted on a library bulletin board or stuck on a car bumper — I see the slogan, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Attributed to Gandhi (even though they weren’t his exact words), the slogan is meant to inspire people to make the world a better place by starting first with a personal transformation.

When Stella Bowles was 11 years old, she didn’t set out with the lofty goal of changing herself to make the world a better place. But her dogged determination to right a wrong that made her mad and turned her into a force of change in her community.

Her Grade 6 science fair project on the raw sewage she discovered polluting the LaHave River near her home became a campaign that made headlines across Canada — and prompted three levels of government to commit more than $15 million to clean up the river and replace straight pipes in Nova Scotia.

“When I started this, I was just an 11-year-old kid doing a boring science project,” said Bowles, who is now a Grade 9 student in Bridgewater. “It has created so much change in our community.”

Bowles’s story caught the attention of author Anne Laurel Carter, who divides her time between Toronto and a home down the road from Bowles’s family in Upper LaHave. Written in Bowles’s voice, Carter captured her story in the book My River: Cleaning up the LaHave River (Formac Publishing). Published last fall, the book was released this month in the United States. Nova Scotia’s Department of Education has already bought more than 1,000 copies for Grade 7 classrooms, said Bowles.

“I hope that other kids get inspired by the book,” she said. “My message is that your age doesn’t define what you can and cannot do.”

A self-described curious kid who has always asked her parents endless questions, Bowles wondered why she wasn’t allowed to swim in the LaHave River. Her mother, Andrea Conrad, told her that the water wasn’t clean because many of the homes along the river still used straight pipes. Instead of having a septic tank, anything flushed down the toilet went straight into the water with little to no filtration, explained her mother, whose family has lived since 1780 on the property where Bowles calls home.

She was shocked by what her mother told her.

“What’s in your toilet, ” she gagged in response. “Poop? Our neighbours are pooing in the LaHave?”

Bowles didn’t let her disbelief and disgust stop her from further investigating. Curious about the impact straight pipes had on the health of the river, her mom, who is a teacher, suggested she speak with their neighbor David Maxwell, a retired doctor who had long been testing the water’s fecal contamination levels. Bowles learned how to test the water in the river and Dr. Maxwell soon became her mentor.

Her findings on the high levels of fecal matter in the river were presented in her science fair project, titled Oh Poop! It’s Worse Than I Thought! Not satisfied to stop at the school project, she launched a public campaign to warn others about the polluted water. She made a sign in big capital letters and posted it on her family’s property. Everyone driving couldn’t miss it: “THIS RIVER IS CONTAMINATED WITH FECAL BACTERIA.”

She also begged her mom to start a Facebook page. Before long, she had thousands of followers and was raising awareness about the polluted water. Since then, she has met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, presented at international conferences including one recently in Sweden, spoken to countless schools and taught other students how to test waterways near their homes. In 2018, (she counted) she was on 25 airplanes and missed 41 days of school. Thanks to FaceTime and Google Classroom she’s been able to keep up with school work.

“It started as a Grade 6 science fair project. It’s way beyond what I thought it would become.”

Excited by the changes she is seeing in her community, she points out that the government has promised to clean up the LaHave River by 2023 and have all 600 straight pipes on the river switched over to septic tanks. So far, she has seen the arrival of close to 80 new sewage tanks on lawns in her community.

Bowles, who looks ahead to possibly studying environmental law one day, knows she couldn’t have accomplished all that she has without her parents, her brother, her nanny and Maxwell.

“If you want to create change,” she said. “You have to talk to your parents and find a mentor.”

Knowing that much more work still needs to be done to clean up waterways and eliminate straight pipes, Bowles seems to understand that in order to be the change she wants to see in the world, she needs to continue working with other smart, committed people.

“I want to share my message,” she said. “I want other youth to know that they can make a difference.”

Other books on the shelf

For aspiring screenplay writers, Gary J. Fontaine has released a new book How Not to Write a Screenplay (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). He’s excited to sign books and show his films on Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. at the Cineplex Cinemas in Lower Sackville.

At the event you can get signed copies of the book (for sale on and watch Fontaine’s short films, as well as his 2013 feature drama Wendy and Wanda.

For more information

Read between the lines with journalist and author Allison Lawlor as she explores the Nova Scotia book scene and chats with local authors in her weekly column.

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