He could have trekked out to the Pacific Northwest. Or perhaps a more far-flung locale, traveling about the globe with other students in Ghana, Bolivia and China.
But to test his visions of renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and water conservation, ideas he sprouted as an Eagle Scout and nurtured during his two years of college, Tim Richards found himself returning to a safe zone that could prove the more uncomfortable place to change. The place was Mount Airy, where he was born and raised, where his parents and grandparents still live.
"If I'm always complaining that Mount Airy's not progressive, then I'm responsible for making the changes I want to see," said Richards, 20, a South Carroll High School graduate and junior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
With a grant from Haverford's Center for Peace & Global Citizenship, Richards this summer launched his own grassroots environmental group, Citizens for a Green Mount Airy. His proposal called for networking with town officials and environmental advocates.
"He had a really practical plan and just the motivation and knowledge he demonstrated in things he was already doing were impressive," said Janice Lion, a program coordinator with the Haverford center.
Some residents and Mount Airy officials say Richards' organization could not have come at a better time, given the growth pressures and water shortages plaguing the town.
Just as Mount Airy enacted a ban on outdoor sprinklers in late July, Citizens for a Green Mount Airy was co-sponsoring a water conservation workshop with free toilet tank banks and low-flow showerheads for those attending. Now in the wake of the destructive downtown fire that caused nearly $4 million in damage, Richards is pushing for the use of green methods as Main Street rebuilds.
As he returned to school last week, he still planned to actively maintain his group's Web site (www.greenmountairy.org) to promote such efforts.
Richards' deep roots in Mount Airy made his proposal especially attractive to Haverford staff. His grandmother, Caroline Richards, was born and raised in Mount Airy, and she and Richards' grandfather still live just houses up the road from Richards' parents on North Main Street.
As an Eagle Scout, Richards demonstrated a model bio-diverse forest in Mount Airy's Wildwood Park. Then at Haverford, he embraced all forms of activism. He became a vegetarian during his freshman year of college, adopted a vegan diet to exclude all animal products last summer and now is trying to eat mostly raw foods, a concept he learned this summer from Jeff Rose, who runs the Natural Zing health foods business and the Spirit Bliss organic farm in the Mount Airy area.
Upon returning to Haverford, Richards moved into a communal environmentally-themed house where students will cook vegan meals and regularly meet together.
"It's sort of the start of a new culture on campus," Richards said.
The philosophy major will leave the liberal arts college of 1,100 students in the spring to spend a semester in Sweden, experiencing life in a socialist country.
Citizens for a Green Mount Airy began quietly with an inconspicuous table at the weekly downtown farmers' market.
As the summer progressed, Richards said he learned to temper his liberal theories to better mesh with the more conservative attitudes in town.
"I've castrated any political rhetoric from my arguments," Richards said. "I just talk about what we can do in the town."
Residents were particularly receptive to Richards' water-saving remedies during this summer's drought. He encouraged the town to give out 20 free rain barrels at a conservation workshop held in July. During storms, the 55-gallon recycled plastic barrels collect rain from a home's gutters, directing any overflow water back into the ground.
Encouraged by the demand for the barrels, Richards then ordered 100 more from Gaithersburg-based Aquabarrel. Close to three-quarters of them have already sold, at a half-price discount of $20 for town residents, Mayor Frank M. Johnson said.
Then Citizens for a Green Mount Airy sponsored a clean energy forum that presented solar, wind and geothermal options. Richards recently helped outfit a Woodsboro home with solar panels, a technology he is encouraging Mount Airy Town Hall to adopt.
Before Mount Airy could qualify for a solar power grant, an energy audit must be done on town hall to make electricity use more efficient, Richards said. Richards also envisions wind turbines at Windy Ridge Farm to harvest energy for a community-based alternative to buying power from a corporation.
Richards has found an ally in Mayor Johnson, a moderate Republican elected on a slow-growth platform.
"He's very flexible, not pushy at all," Johnson said. "He came right back home and said, 'I can make my own place a better place.'"