Earth girl: Junior’s activism fueled by passion, kindness

Macy Beal
Orla waits for the train on the 59th street Metra station with her friends to get to the climate march downtown from Lab.

Berk Oto, Managing Editor

Environmental activist Orla Molloy is known by plenty of titles and roles, including seal rescuer, volunteer, Illinois Youth Climate Movement Ambassador and president of the Green Team and REACT club. 

“Around school, I’m known as the go-to Earth girl,” Orla, a junior, said.

Newest of all, she’s the winner of the Shedd Aquarium’s Young Naturalist Award for her volunteer work and activism. She received the award in late May for a work-study she did at the aquarium since September.

Orla said, “I’ve been working in guest engagement, which is presenting to museum-goers and answering their questions, and I’ve completed ethograms on animals.”

Orla started volunteering at the Shedd Aquarium two years ago and now holds a paid position there. She also started volunteering at the Plant Chicago last year to complete her service hours, and she still tries to go there at least a few times a month.

“I was always very into nature,” she said, “but I really started volunteering during my freshman year and it wasn’t until my sophomore year of service when I got into the rhythm of it.”

Orla is grateful for her year of service because it helped enable her to explore her passion.

“Being required to get a certain amount of hours in gave me a good excuse to justify doing what I already loved doing,” she said. “For that I’m really grateful to the service learning program, and I think it’s really important.”

Orla Molloy protests downtown with her friends during the climate strike in September 2019. (Maria Shaughnessy)

In addition to volunteering, Orla expresses her passion for marine life through protest.

“I’ve been to women’s marches and other kinds of protests, but I enjoy environmental protests the most since it’s mostly people in my age demographic. Even the people in the movement that I look up to, like Greta Thunberg, are people I can relate with,” she said. “Also, it’s a universal issue — there’s no one on the other side who wants animals to die and ecosystems to collapse.”

Orla often works with junior Rachel Scruby when planning events for Lab or Green Team. The two have been friends for three years and have grown closer through their activism.

it’s a universal issue — there’s no one on the other side who wants animals to die and ecosystems to collapse.

— Orla Molloy

“She’s such a passionate person and it really shows how much she cares about protecting the environment,” Rachel said. “She devotes so much time to it — so yeah, she totally deserves the recognition.”

One of Orla’s greatest strengths is her friendly personality, according to Rachel.

“It’s really important in environmental activism to reach out to people, and she’s really good at that since she’s so nice and easy to talk to,” Rachel said.

During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Orla said she has struggled to find ways to continue her activism.

“We did a virtual strike over Zoom, but there’s not much else to do right now,” she said. 

While Orla is eager for the stay-at-home order to end so she can continue volunteering, she hopes others learn to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle so greenhouse gas emissions don’t spike back up.

“The biggest thing is that I hear a lot of people say they want everything to return to normal and I’m like, ‘Nooo!’ she said. “Right now, people are traveling less and using less carbon, so we’re seeing ecosystems and wildlife recovering. The last thing we want to do is return to normal.”

While she doesn’t want pollution levels to return to normal, Orla is eager to return to the Shedd Aquarium and continue her volunteer work.

“It’s the little things that I miss about it,” she said. “I do this presentation where I show kids what’s happening to hard corals, and I miss seeing the curiosity and wonder light up on their faces when the coral turns bleach white. When I see that and listen to their questions, I can trust that people younger than me are going to be as passionate about the ocean, too.”