SAN DIEGO — Over the past 14 years, a recycling program at Stella Maris Academy has raised more than $16,000 to support the work of Catholic missionaries.
At first, that might not seem like such a large amount, admitted Mike Erickson, the retired teacher who oversees the program.
“But it’s money that wasn’t there before,” he said of the project, which simultaneously benefits the planet as well as some of its poorest inhabitants.
Erickson, 69, taught at Stella Maris Academy from 1975 until his retirement in 2015 and started an intramural sports program there that is still going strong after 38 years. He initiated the recycling program in 2005 after the idea was suggested by a student. Now retired, Erickson has continued his involvement with the school as a volunteer. He is on campus three days a week, serving as a tutor and as an academic decathlon coach, as well as recycling the California Refund Value (CRV) beverage containers that students and parishioners continue to collect for him.
The money is donated the Missionary Childhood Association, one of the Pontifical Mission Societies, whose motto is “Children helping children.” The organization provides opportunities for local Catholic school children to support their peers in mission lands through prayer, sacrifices and monetary donations.
Of the recycling program, Erickson said, “It was important for me when I was teaching … and I realized that, if I stopped doing it, would anyone else do it?”
He explained that it has become “a way of life” for him and that he aims to “keep doing it as long as I’m able.” He enjoys his role, which includes taking bottles and cans by the carload, typically every other Saturday, to a local recycling facility, where he sorts them and turns them in for reimbursement.
Now that he is retired and no longer has his own classroom where he can collect and store the recyclables, the students’ role in the program has become somewhat diminished. However, he hopes that it still plays a part in their development into “people who care for the poor.”
Before his retirement, the students would regularly help him crush the bottles and cans, and along with them he would get down on his knees to pick them up and sort them into the appropriate boxes.
Erickson saw the act of getting down on one’s knees as a demonstration of humility, of “getting on our knees for the poor.”
“There’s an important symbolism there that we need to understand,” he said, “as people who have been given more opportunities from our Lord than maybe the people that we’re helping.”
Sister Eva Rodriguez, diocesan director of the Missionary Childhood Association and a member of the Sister Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, noted that recycling is “such a simple project,” but Erickson turned it into “a life lesson” for students.
“Hopefully, this recycling program can serve as an inspiration to other teachers [and] schools,” she said. “Our young people today need to find meaning in what they learn every day. By teaching them that there are so many little ways in which we can reach out to others, they’ll be able to make a difference wherever they are.”
Francie Moss, who recently began her first year as principal of Stella Maris Academy, met Erickson a few weeks into the job.
“My first impression was, wow, what an incredibly dedicated and committed man!” she said. “Then, as we spoke at length, I began to realize the extent of his love for the school and for the students.
“He wants to help these young people make a positive impact on our world by imparting to them the importance of being good stewards of our environment,” she continued.
She said, “Every school should be lucky enough to have a ‘Mr. Erickson’” of its own.