A.L. Brown High School teachers, students growing beards to save animals

What does A.L. Brown High School senior Kristopher Odom like about the Sumatran rhinoceros?

“Honestly, I think it looks cool,” Odom said. “I never saw a rhino with long hair on its body.”

In the next week, the world’s Sumatran rhinos will be just as curious about some of the hairs on Odom’s face. Odom is participating in A.L. Brown’s Beardathon, a fundraising contest benefiting the World Wildlife Fund, a nature conversation organization.

If Odom’s beard is longer than other participants’ beards Dec. 19, all the money the school raises will support conservation of the Sumatran rhino through the WWF.

The Beardathon is a project of the school’s Environmental Club, of which Odom is a member. The club is sponsored by Trent Wharton, an earth and environmental science teacher at the school.

“We’ve got some pretty grizzly-looking guys right now,” Wharton said Dec. 3. “Some people couldn’t handle it and bowed out, but over half still have the ‘Grizzly Adams’ look going.”

Participants – 20 A.L. Brown teachers and students – started growing beards Nov. 9. Each picked a certain endangered animal to represent.

Contestants have been soliciting donations for more than a month; teachers set up jars inside classrooms. The Beardathon goal is to raise $5,000.

On the final day of the contest, Environmental Club students will go to each classroom, measuring all of the Wonders’ beards. The animal whose club representative has the longest beard will be the animal on whose behalf the donation will be made.

World history teacher Shane Dagenhart already had a beard – about a half-inch long, by his estimate – when Wharton approached him about participating in the contest. Being a good sport, Dagenhart shaved off his beard and started a new one in the name of the African wild dog, an animal selected by his students.

“I’m always inspired to win,” said Dagenhart, whose new beard was about a quarter-inch long with two weeks left in the contest. “I think I have a shot. We’ll see how the last two weeks end up.

“It’s been fun. The bottom line is it all goes to a great cause. I’ve had a chance to show my students some videos of these animals on these reserves and how limited those numbers are.”

Odom is a second-year member of the Environmental Club. As a 17-year-old, he considers himself a pretty good beard-grower for his age.

He has a special interest in conserving the environment and protecting endangered species: He plans to major in wildlife leadership and experiential education at Brevard College and aspires to be a national park ranger.

Wharton, representing the black jaguar, has adopted animals through the wildlife fund for several years. He has placed stuffed animal toys representing the real animals throughout his classroom.

“I compiled a list of threatened and endangered species from around the world, hoping we could tie it into the curriculum,” said Wharton. “I told the principal we could tie it into the classroom, working it into where the animals live and why they are threatened, and things like that.”

Environmental Club members are helping the environment in other ways. On Sept. 27, they participated in a cleanup of the Catawba River at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

On Dec. 20, members will help in a park cleanup at a site determined by Kannapolis Public Works.

Wharton said he also is helping A.L. Brown High pursue U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools status, an award recognizing schools friendly to the environmental.