Sumter's Next Generation, presented by CCTC: Sumter High's Michael O'Neal scouts for sustainability, encourages teens to make a difference


Pristine trails, crisp, clean air and a pond filled with wildlife - that's the vision that drives Sumter High School rising junior Michael O'Neal to care for the school's Environmental Center.

At 16 years old, Michael said his dedication to environmental protection and preservation began in his environmental science class. Trails submerged in water because of overflow made it impossible for students to explore the center's natural beauty.

"I didn't like seeing that," Michael expressed. "I wanted this to be accessible, so we came back out here, I talked with the teacher [William Floyd], we got it addressed, and I was given permission to work on it."

As part of his Eagle Scout project, Michael, with help from trusted friends and family, began venturing out to the environmental center about April 20 to begin cleaning out the culvert, but the water continued to settle. About May 15, they installed a drainage system that features a 40-foot-long pipe with a 6-inch elbow on the end and a 3-foot cage at the problem site, draining about 6 million gallons of water that had overflowed from the nearly 40-acre spring-fed pond; the water, once drained, flows down the canal to Mathis Pond.

"I'd probably say at full flow, we would drain about 1,000 gallons per minute," Michael said.

The process wasn't easy, involving great amounts of digging and dealing with pesky beavers - the main culprit behind the water overflow.

These industrious animals blocked the existing culvert with their dams. Michael and his team would go hand-to-paw combat, manually clearing these blockages and beavers.

But the project means more to Michael than just a requirement for his Eagle Scout badge; it's a means to make a meaningful impact on his community.

"This project really let me see what it means to be a Scout," he said. "Coming out here, I've seen so much trash out here; these trails were trashed, there's trash all in the water. It really affects the wildlife that's out here … the beavers, their dams have trash in them. They're partially built from trash. The importance of cleaning up and that kind of thing, it really helps the environment."

Deer, raccoons, a crane or two - all have been spotted traveling through this haven of horticulture. Every week, no less than three times a week, Michael takes a trip out to the environmental center to clear any blockage and ensure the water flows properly. But his work isn't finished yet.

"I'd probably do some trail maintenance. There's an environmental classroom that you really can't get to because all the trails are overgrown. So, I'd like to do [that], some trash cleanup, maintenance on these bridges," Michael explained. "I really like working on this project out here."

And Michael doesn't doubt other students would feel the same if they spent more time among the trees. Once he returns from Scout Summer Camp, he has plans to develop a club to drive maintenance of the center and teach outdoor ethics because "a connection to nature is good to have."