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Howard County teen focuses her unique world view

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Madeline Xi Cui Friedman was born in China and has lived much of her life with her family in western Howard County, but she considers herself a global citizen.

The 17-year-old high school senior attends the Shanghai Community International School in China but spends much of her summer at Sharp's at Waterford Farm, a 530-acre family vegetable and livestock operation in Brookeville.

At an age when many of her contemporaries might be planning spring break or post-graduation trips, Friedman has already traveled to many parts of the world, visiting several impoverished regions. Those journeys, and perhaps her time working at the farm, have helped her develop a passion for environmental issues.

"I don't want to die because of a bad environment," she says. "I want to be able to live to see my grandchildren."

Friedman has explored and photographed rain forests, wetlands, deserts and seas, and has been part of projects to protect sea turtles from poachers, create orangutan habitats, and build rain gardens and greenhouses.

"I've always had this feeling of wanting to help my Earth," she says.

Those efforts were the basis for her recent selection as one of 32 students from across the United States to the 2014 National Youth Leadership Council for the Jane Goodall Institute's global environmental and humanitarian youth program, Roots & Shoots.

Friedman's travels have been fueled, in part, by her mother, Robin Friedman, a teacher now living with her daughter near Shanghai.

"Maddie's had a very unique lifestyle compared to a lot of Americans," her mother says.

Friedman, who was adopted from China and is a U.S. citizen, founded Roots & Shoots branches at two international schools she attended in China. Through the program, she has had the opportunity to join several major environmental projects, including the Million Tree Project in Inner Mongolia, in which she raised money and helped plant more than 2,000 trees to combat desertification.

She returns yearly to keep track of the reforestation project, and says she has witnessed the return of wildlife and farmers planting crops.

Robin Friedman partly credits a global lifestyle, which includes exposure to youth from all over the world at international schools, for her daughter's compassionate nature. But she says her interests in nature and the environment were also shaped on Sharp's Farm as a youngster, through days of horseback riding and walks in the woods identifying plants with her cousin.

"Maddie has certainly been exposed to a multitude of experiences which have enriched her life, but I believe she has had an innate interest and drive to be near nature since she was young," her mother says.

Robin Friedman, who grew up in the Baltimore area, is proud of all her daughter has accomplished. "She's very comfortable in who she is now. She's really blossomed."

In her spare time, Madeline Friedman pursues wildlife photography as a means of showing others what's going on in the world. She shares photos from China, Japan, the Czech Republic, Malaysia and other countries on her public Facebook page.

In addition to founding Roots & Shoots clubs and playing soccer and volleyball, she has been a member of the Model United Nations and Girl Scouts Overseas, and has received numerous community service excellence awards. She was an Alcoa Foundation Go Green Ambassador grant recipient in 2012, enabling her to attend an environmental caucus in Prague.

Zhenxi Zhong, executive director of the Shanghai Roots & Shoots, says Friedman is a rarity in the Chinese culture, in which students are generally focused solely on academics and less on extracurricular activities.

"She sees beyond the immediate test scores and is committed to pursuing her passion for the environment and wildlife," Zhong says. "To do what she has done takes courage and determination."

Zhong has worked with Friedman on Roots & Shoots over the past four years.

"She is an extraordinary young woman," Zhong says. "Not only is she caring and warm, she is also extremely dedicated and capable."

Friedman is working on a documentary to raise awareness of the plight of orangutans in Borneo, which are seeing their habitats disrupted by multinational companies that produce palm oil. The oil is a common ingredient in snack foods consumed around the world.

"People are using it for a lot of things, and they don't realize the damage it causes," she says.

To kick off her new role in the council, Friedman is encouraging young people to submit video proposals for a chance to win $1,000 from Roots & Shoots that would go toward financing a project at their local national park. Participants can enter through the program's website, rootsandshoots.org/campaigns/national-parks-video-competition.

"I am very excited about this initiative," she says.

As she travels the world, Friedman, who hopes to become an environmental scientist, is considering where to attend college in the United States. While she doesn't have a specific destination in mind, she says one thing is certain:

"I definitely want to be near a forest."

nadavis@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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