Mr Goby and Friends: Protectors of the EnvironmentJuly 15th, 2022
Monique Vernon is an environmentalist and founder of Mr Goby and Friends. Her recycling initiative has been tackling improper waste disposal and promoting marine protection and restoration in Placencia, a seaside village in southern Belize. Monique was one of twenty finalists in the 2022 Commonwealth Youth Awards held earlier this year. 26-year-old Taiwo Olawehinmi, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Nigeria spoke to Monique about her environmental protection work.
Tell me about Mr Goby and Friends.
Mr Goby and Friends is a recycling project in Placencia that collects plastic bottles and caps. After collecting these bottles and caps, they are donated to other organisations. We also host beach clean-ups and build awareness about the effects of environmental pollution. Using eye-catching marine-themed garbage cans, we encourage kids to practice proper waste disposal which will result in cleaner beaches and oceans and healthier reefs.
Everything about Mr. Goby and Friends was made to entertain kids. The name came from a fish-shaped bin I discovered in Indonesia, called ‘Goby’. Secondly, “Mr.” was added to connect better with the kids. And I knew I wanted more than just one bin – “Mr Goby”, so I added “Friends” to emphasize it would be more than just a fish bin. It would also include manatees, whales, sharks, dolphins, turtles, and other marine wildlife you can find here, in Belize. For each bin we create, we give it a specific name so kids can relate better to them.
Why did you start this initiative?
I had always wanted to give back to the community, but for a long time, I didn’t know what that would look like or what it would entail. It wasn’t until I participated in a World Merit programme in the UK, that I began doing some research on environmental protection. It led me to discover this creative method of collecting trash using a fish-shaped bin. Upon my return, I started sourcing materials, welders, and got permission from the village council to place them on the beach. Everything has been a success since.
What would you say has been responsible for the creative approach and success of Mr Goby & Friends since it began?
Many factors have played a role in our success over the past two years. Firstly, I have to thank the Placencia Village Council for supporting the idea and allowing me to place the first bin on the beach. Mr. Gregory Peck is the local welder behind all the amazing receptacles we’ve created so far. His welding skills show in his sculptures and we are very grateful to have his collaboration. Several folks supported us via GoFundMe to assist in creating more recycling receptacles and thanks to them we were able to grow our Goby team quickly. We also have some businesses like Turtle Inn and local residents who have ordered recycling receptacles for their property and provide incentives for folks who engage with the bins. We also have to thank all the volunteers who have joined our clean-up initiatives, helped paint a bin, emptied one, or even placed their unwanted bottles in our receptacles. This project is community-based and is an integral part of who we are and what we do.
What would you say is the biggest impact of Mr Goby and Friends?
The biggest impact Mr Goby and Friends have made to date is producing 15 marine-themed bins across 4 coastal communities and tourism hotspots: 7 in Placencia, 1 in Seine Bight, 2 in Hopkins, and 5 in Caye Caulker. We’ve collected over 10,000 plastic bottles and caps from 4 of the 15 receptacles and donated them in exchange for free chemotherapy treatment for children. We’ve also hosted over 100 cleanup campaigns and collaborated with several school groups, NGOs and businesses.
What’s that one lesson you’ve learned in the course of working for social and environmental change?
Giving back feels as rewarding as receiving.
What’s the next big thing for you and Mr. Goby & Friends?
We have recently partnered with the Belize Solid Waste Management Authority to conduct a recycling pilot project in Placencia and Caye Caulker. This is exciting and will help Mr. Goby and Friends to grow and make a massive impact. In the next 5-10 years, I hope to expand Mr. Goby and Friends to more communities and introduce more sustainable activities, enhance my leadership and management skills and even learn how to weld.
In March of this year, you were named the Commonwealth Youth Award Finalist. You were the first Belizean finalist, how did it feel?
I am honoured that I was nominated and recognized for the work I’ve been implementing in Placencia village. I am overwhelmed with excitement and happiness that I, a 28-year-old female from a fishing community turned tourist destination, get to show other females out there that nothing is impossible. I am proud to lead Belize in this new chapter of achievements. Most of all, I feel empowered as a woman and I want to continue to use my voice and actions to help empower others as well!
Who’s your role model?
I look up to a lot of people and my list keeps growing.
My father, Leslie Vernon Sr. has been an important person in my childhood years. He taught me everything he knew. Because of his influence, I fell in love with nature.
My grandmother, Cherrymae Vernon is also my role model. Her fierceness, strength, courage, and leadership are what I love about my grandmother. She encouraged me to pursue my education, and of course, not bring a baby home.
Lisa Carne, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Michelle Obama, Robyn Fenty, Oprah, are also some of the great women I look up to. Their leadership, determination, and courage inspire me, empower me, and challenge me. I hope in return, I can also inspire others out there.
Photo Credit: Monique Vernon
About the Correspondent: Taiwo Olawehinmi is an emerging global health Pharmacist, with interest in health financing and policymaking. She was selected as a West African Young Leader in 2020, in recognition of her leadership potential and passion for Africa. She is also a 2018 United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) Millennium Fellow. Her interest in policymaking led her to Model United Nations (MUN) Conferences and she has co-chaired various MUN Committees within and outside Africa including World Health Organization (WHO).