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Shannon Wentworth

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Do a Little... A Lot

Posted: 12/15/11 05:24 PM ET

For me, it all started a dare. As a stubborn 16-year-old, my boss at Round Table Pizza dared me to eat vegetarian for a month. She was vegetarian. I was relentless in teasing her about being weak. But she said those magic words: I dare you.

Ha, how hard could it be? I'd show her. A hardcore meat-and-potatoes girl, after two weeks, my resolve waned. It was not as easy as I thought it would be. What in the heck do vegetarians eat?

So I did what my mom always tells me to do: I looked it up in our prized New World Encyclopedia collection, where I found a scant entry. Next, dodging dinosaurs, I drove my horse and buggy to the library, where I braved paper cuts in the card catalog.

There, I found a veritable cornucopia of information on food, factory farming and the environmental impact of something everyone has to do multiple times per day -- eating.

Suddenly, eating meat seemed incredibly wasteful. Did you know that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to make one pound of meat? Moreover, factory farms produce billions of pounds of excrement every day. It seeps into our water and food supply.

Coincidental to this dare, my awareness about the burgeoning environmental movement was growing. Going vegetarian and refusing to use products tested on animals seemed to be the final link in the chain. I went for it whole hog (minus the actual hog, of course).

I wrote earnest letters to restaurants using Styrofoam, "Dear sir or madam, please stop killing the planet." I put stickers from PETA on animal-tested products in the grocery store. A year later, I went vegan. The next year, I literally tattooed the Earth on my shoulder, because I loved it so much.

Yeah, you were right, mom, it was permanent.

I drove a 50-miles-per-gallon Geo Metro with the license plate UNA TERA (it means "one Earth" in Latin). I precycled, recycled, freecycled and cycled. I was an extra crunchy granola dyke -- I had a shirt made. I wore it. I was ready to sacrifice all my personal comfort for the Earth.

Adults would say, "Oh, when you grow up, you'll mellow out, you'll see you can't make a difference." Here I am, 23 years later, nearly as stubborn, slightly mellowed and hellbent on making a difference, a big one.

Coming from a long and noble line of mentally ill people, I inherited enough crazy to think I can change the world, but not enough to make a tinfoil hat to keep you from reading my thoughts.

In 2000 I made the transition from print to online journalism. From there, I moved into online marketing. The buzzwords flew fast and furious. While infection in most aspects of your life is bad, on the Internet it's liquid gold. Everything needed to go viral, be contagious or infect people.

I thought: if viral marketing can get a sneezing kitten 10 million page views, the Earth needs a new PR agent. How can I make this spinning ball of gas and rock go viral? A few people making huge sacrifices is not nearly as impactful as a lot of people doing a little -- a lot.

Imagine you've got a giant Snickers bar. It looks too big to eat. You don't want to start because that's way too much.

Now, remember back to Halloween, as you waited to hand out candy. Those bite-sized snickers went down like popcorn, until you'd actually eaten way more than the giant Snickers.

It's genius marketing. But what's the bite-sized Snickers equivalent of saving the world?

That's where the idea for Sweet emerged. Leveraging my experience in lesbian travel and LGBT marketing, my business partner and I struck upon the idea to take lesbians on vacation, get them out of their comfort zones and rally them to take on one bite-size chunk of a problem in a place we are visiting.

The formula is simple: create short, fun, two- to three-hour projects, do them, celebrate them, have a nap and repeat.

Two years ago, Sweet chartered the 1,972-passenger Norwegian Spirit and embarked on the world's largest carbon-free cruise. Among a half-dozen other community service projects in our ports, we took 152 guests to an all-you-can-eat-and-drink resort. In a fun, 45-minute contest, we pulled 220 bags of trash, a big screen TV and a sink from the beach surrounding the resort. We found trash as far away as Russia and China. We gave prizes for the team that collected the most flip-flops, strangest piece of trash and the trash from the farthest away. We spent the rest of the day indulging ourselves at the resort.

Big impact. Small commitment. Lots of people. Loads of fun. It's an addictive formula.

Our projects have put me knee-deep in an alligator-infested marsh, elbow-deep in cat guts and waist-deep in trash on the most beautiful beaches in the world.

In two years, Sweet has taken 2,200 people on 13 vacations in 6 countries, we've logged 3,298 hours of community service, we've planted over 6,000 trees, removed more than 400 bags of trash from beaches, rescued more than 60 dogs and cats, shown 300 baby sea turtles the way to the ocean, trapped and sterilized 21 feral cats, revitalized five schools, hospitals and parks, delivered 819 cans and boxes of food and donated 2,499 books.

We partner with the local community wherever we go. Something transformative happens when you stand shoulder to shoulder with another person and focus on uplifting yourself and your world.

When you show people how easy it is, they want to do more, and pretty soon our bowl of bite-size community projects is empty. But wait, there's more.

Our community service projects have proved a gateway drug for our guests. After seeing how easy and fun it is to make a difference, our guests take up the mantle and find their own projects to do. That's the ripple effect. When you cast a stone into a pond, no matter how small, it creates a ripple that eventually reaches every shore.

And so I ask you: what are you passionate about? What do you want to change? How can you make it fun? Can you donate a pencil or a children's book? Can you collect trash on your next beach trip? Can you get your friends to do it, too? Cast your first pebble into the sea and watch the ripples grow, I dare you.