Young artist’s fish fund Gulf recovery


4:00 P.M. EST September 13, 2010

Lyon Jernigan, 9, paints pictures of fishes to raise money for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Brewton Standard.
Lyon Jernigan, 9, paints pictures of fishes to raise money for the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Brewton Standard.

When 9-year-old Lyon Jernigan read a story in People magazine about a girl who sold her paintings to raise money to help recovery efforts in the Gulf, his response was quick: “Wow, I could do something like that.”

Within a few weeks, the Alabama fourth-grader—with a little help from his mom and his church—put together an army of artists from all over the United States and raised more than $19,000 for the Dauphin Island (Ala.) Sea Lab Foundation. Now scientists at the sea lab can continue their work restoring water quality in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.

“He’s a kid who said, ‘I can make a difference,’” said the Rev. Ed Glaize, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Brewton, Ala., where the Jernigans are members. “He’s realized a young person really can change the world.”

Emmie Jernigan, Lyon’s mom, is the “sparkplug” behind her son’s vision. When she saw how upset he was about the Gulf tragedy, and then how excited he was about finding a way to help, she got on her computer and e-mailed everyone she knew requesting donations of art. Those e-mails produced more e-mails, which were also forwarded. In the end, more than 200 pieces of art were donated from all over the United States.

In the meantime, Lyon himself was busy creating nine acrylic paintings of colorful fish like a four-eye flounder, yellowtail wrasse, harvest fish and others.

When the Funds for Fishes silent auction was held, and the results astonished everyone.

“We never really thought it would be this big,” said Emmie Jernigan. “It always just felt like the right thing to do—like a ‘God thing.’ We didn’t have doubts. We just ran with it.

“I knew it was coming from his heart, and I think it’s important that anytime you can teach your child they can make a difference, it’s important to do that,” Emmie Jernigan said. “Everything about the oil spill had been so negative, and it was just really important to have control in a positive way. You can’t really take a 9-year-old to the beach to collect oil, so this was a practical way he could do something.”

Lyon and his two brothers have spent most of their childhood summers on the white sand beaches and in the emerald waters of Orange Beach, Ala., where their family has a summer home. The oil spill hurt them—not only because their recreational activities were interrupted, but also because the livelihood of so many of their Gulf Coast neighbors was affected. Lyon, described as a sensitive, thoughtful child, took it particularly hard.

“I haven’t seen any oil yet, but I have seen tar balls,” Lyon said. “I know it’s really bad, and it makes me feel sad.”

Lyon’s concern, coupled with his artistic solution, was infectious. Artists—young and old, professional and amateur—stepped forward to help, and so did members of his church. A few contributed their own canvases, and the church was instrumental in broadcasting the event to the community and preparing food for the silent auction.

“He got us inspired to step outside the box,” said Glaize. “I love what one person said about Lyon . . . that his words matter, his actions matter, and his life matters. He served notice to us all that we matter too.”

What doesn’t matter, said the young artist, is a person’s age.

“It doesn’t matter how big or how small you are,” Lyon said. “You can make a difference.”

*Passi-Klaus is a staff writer on the Public Information Team at United Methodist Communications.

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