Three Rivers students tell story of climate change in community

Kaweah Kweens documentary wins $5,000 grant as part of The Big Tell film competition sharing stories of the Central Valley

VISALIA – The Kaweah River runs through Three Rivers and acts as an outdoor playground where local children experience, explore and extol its natural beauty.

Growing up in Three Rivers, Anna Villavicencio has spent countless hours of her youth wondering and pondering the river and the riparian ecosystem it creates. Unfortunately, her hikes along the river have seen an increase in trash and have had to withstand the effects of wildfires over the last few years of her life. Anna, and a small group of her environmentally conscience friends, decided to make an “eco pact” to clean up their hometown habitat in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same. Anna, along with Jayla Karplus, Alice Warner, and Abby Nesmith, called themselves the Kaweah Kweens, and they are the subject of locally acclaimed short documentary of the same name.

“I’ve always kind of grown-up close to nature,” said Villavicencio. “My family has always been an outdoorsy family. We go hiking and we just are outside a lot of the time. We grew up swimming in the river and those sorts of things, kind of makes you want to protect it because it’s a place that you love.”

Kaweah Kweens was among 10 story ideas to receive a $5,000 grant from The Big Tell competition, hosted by the Central Valley Community Foundation, to produce the film. The competition is open for any non-profit organization seeking to tell a story about the Central Valley. The girls applied for the competition with the help of the Fresno chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), a non-profit, nonpartisan, advocacy organization lobbying for policies to address climate change throughout the nation.

CCL contacted Visalia-based filmmaker Zach Green to produce and direct Kaweah Kweens. Green’s company, Zach Green Films, produces documentaries as well as promotional videos for businesses, non-profit organizations, and school program videos. Green had previously been awarded a grant from The Big Tell for his 2018 documentary on sex trafficking in the Valley called “Preying on Innocents.”

“We have these four middle school girls at Three Rivers that are just amazing at doing so much work,” said Green. “Even though the story focuses on four girls, it’s a whole group of middle school girls that care so much about the environment, and they’re trying to do things that have a positive effect on their local environment.”

After Green began filming for the documentary last summer, a lighting storm ignited two fires in Sequoia National Park on Sept. 9, the Colony Fire and the Paradise Fire. The two fires eventually merged into one known as the KNP Complex Fire. The devastating fire placed most of Three Rivers under voluntary evacuation orders, and some areas were mandatory evacuation orders, as they burned more than 88,000 acres before dying out on Dec. 16.

“I was honestly expecting another bad fire season, that’s just what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting another fire so close to come,” said Villavicencio. “That was super scary, but it’s helped me figure out that climate change has a bigger personal effect, because it’s so close to home.”

The KNP Complex, coupled with last year’s Castle Fire, the largest in Tulare County history, have combined to kill between 14% and 19% of the world’s native population of giant sequoias, among the oldest living things on the planet.

“These wildfires are a part of our history in the Sierras, but they’re worse than they ever have been before. A lot of the reason is climate change,” Green said.

The documentary shares the story of the four Three Rivers Union School students who are asking others to join their “eco pact” to preserve the place they love by preaching conservation in their community. While most people are aware of climate changes and its effect on their surroundings, Villavicencio said many, even those in her eco-friendly community, have yet to take steps to help the cause. She suspects many are reluctant to take on such a big issue, but the film’s message is that each of us can make minor adjustments in our lives to combat the effects of climate change, such as composting, using biodegradable straws, and picking up trash along the highway and throughout their community.

Throughout the filming process Green gave credit to two of his producers Jackie Schuster and Mikayla Tavarez, both graduates from El Diamante High School’s Media Arts Academy. The producers not only helped film interviews and scenery shoots but they helped coordinate a story for Kaweah Kweens to tell.

“They were the ones who went through all their footage and picked up the right scenes,” said Villavicencio. “They had a really important job and they did a great job.”

The Big Tell competition usually hosts an in-person premier at the Tower Theater in Fresno. Due to COVID-19 this year’s premier event was virtual for the public. Documentaries of all 10 winners can be viewed at the Central Valley Community Foundation’s YouTube channel. For more information on The Big Tell competition and the foundation, visit www.centralvalleycf.org/thebigtell.

Villavicencio said she plans to attend college and major in science, possibly earth science, but until then she wants to continue her work with the Kaweah Kweens in high school and continue to grow the “eco pact” movement in her hometown along the Kaweah River.

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