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Notre Dame student crowned 2017 Queen of the Chesapeake

Notre Dame Preparatory School student Gabriella Kastrunes, left, speaks with her mother, Dottie Taylor-Kastrunes, about her work educating other students about keeping the Chesapeake Bay clean by preventing litter.
Notre Dame Preparatory School student Gabriella Kastrunes, left, speaks with her mother, Dottie Taylor-Kastrunes, about her work educating other students about keeping the Chesapeake Bay clean by preventing litter. (Margarita Cambest/BSMG Staff)

With poise, grace and a customary white dress, the 2017 Queen of the Chesapeake is a 17-year-old student at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson.

Gabriella Kastrunes, of Fullerton, is a rising senior at the private Catholic school.

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In June, the former Riverside Yacht Club princess competed with four former Maryland yacht club princesses to earn the crown in the 70th annual Queen of the Chesapeake pageant. The winner, who promotes the Chesapeake Bay for the year, earns a $1,500 college scholarship.

The organizers say she'll represent some 2,000 members at 35 yacht clubs that line the bay in Maryland, attending balls, openings and other social gatherings and speaking at the events.

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Contestants must be between 15 and 21, unmarried and related to a member of their sponsoring yacht club to participate, according to application guidelines.

A less formal contest with no cash prize, King of the Chesapeake, will be hosted for men of any age July 29 at the Red Eye Yacht Club. For that contest, men compete in talent and costume, swimsuit and question-and-answer sessions with originality and humor being the primary factors in judging.

For Queen of the Chesapeake, contestants are judged on achievements, interview, poise, appearance and essays, according to the application.

Gabriella's achievements included more than 858 volunteer hours speaking to children about the health of the Chesapeake Bay and volunteering at a summer camp for city students, a passion for service that stems from her parents, whom she said met while volunteering for the Baltimore County Department of Parks and Recreation.

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Gabriella's interest in the bay, she said, grew from her time as princess of the Riverside Yacht Club in Essex, where she was introduced to the idea of preventing litter to keep the bay clean.

Though Gabriella's immediate family does not own a boat, an aunt does and the Kastrunes family has been coming to the yacht club "for a few years." The club's rear commodore, Sam Weaver, showed Gabriella the effects of littering.

"If they put a piece of trash on the ground it doesn't seem like a lot but that eventually ends up in the bay," Gabriella said.

Weaver is also the president of the Back River Restoration Committee, a volunteer nonprofit dedicated to restoring the health of the tidal portion of the Back River watershed.

Weaver said trash can make its way down multiple tributaries that connect to the river, including Herring Run in Towson, and flow into Back River in Rosedale. From there, the river meanders through Baltimore City before continuing through Essex and eventually the Chesapeake.

The group cleans up the Back River in hopes of preserving the Chesapeake Bay for future generations with a 12-foot "trash wagon," and seasonal cleanups in neighborhoods near waterways that eventually connect to the river.

The white, motorized boat has an attachment that scoops up debris.

At one recent seasonal cleanup, Weaver said, volunteers collected 16,000 pounds of trash in one day, pulling everything from mattresses and tires to athletic balls from behind an Armistead Gardens community bordering Herring Run Park.

"I'm not going to live long enough to keep cleaning so the education part that Gabby is doing is a big deal," Weaver said. "Without educating everyone it's not going to make a difference. It's probably the most important thing we could be doing."

The BRRC is part of the Annapolis-based Choose Clean Water Coalition. The group, which includes more than 230 nonprofit members from Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, New York and Washington, works to improve water quality along the bay through advocacy at federal, state and local levels.

"Many of our members are small nonprofits like Back River Restoration," Choose Clean Water Coalition Director Chanté Coleman said. "We consider these groups to be the backbone of the Chesapeake restoration effort, making progress to restore rivers and streams that flow into the bay."

Gabriella's volunteer efforts include working with Notre Dame's Camp Umoja, which services children from Baltimore City public housing.

Throughout the school year, Gabriella works with a team of five students and their director of social services, Steven Pomplon, to plan camp events. Pomplon is also the director of Camp Umoja.

Gabriella started volunteering at the camp as a rising freshman and has returned every summer since, she said, putting in about 70 to 100 hours each summer at the camp.

"She's extremely dedicated and extremely passionate and keeps talking about how she wants to stay on staff after high school," Pomplon said. "That kind of thing is invaluable for our camp."

Recently, Gabriella and the other student leaders saw an opportunity to incorporate lessons on the bay into the academic portion of camp. Counselors helped with hands-on projects about bay restoration and campers brainstormed solutions to clean the bay.

Gabriella helped raised money to purchase school supplies and taped information about the bay into each notebook.

"She's always been someone who doesn't follow," Gabriella's mother, Dottie Taylor-Kastrunes said. "She always seeks answers and finds how problems can be fixed."

Looking ahead, Gabriella said she hopes to continue spreading her message by traveling around Maryland, giving presentations about the bay. With the help of her mother, she said she is looking into founding a nonprofit, tentatively named Sea the Future, to inspire a love of the environment in children and empowering them to make a difference.

"Right now this is just the beginning," Gabriella said.



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