Alison Lerner sits nervously in front of Leavey Library, playing with a gold locket around her neck, wide-eyed on a Saturday morning.
Without talking to her, one never would have guessed that this unassuming, demure freshman carried the Olympic torch.
Selected by a committee at Coca-Cola Co., Lerner was one of 10 exceptional teenagers selected to participate in the Olympic Torch Relay because of her commitment to the environment. Her childrens’ book is aimed at teaching children about sustainability.
She was only 16 years old — a high school student in Los Angeles involved with the Environmental Club — when she wrote the colorfully illustrated book .
“It’s about starting with small things like turning off lights and unplugging your computer,” Alison said about beginning the path to a greener future. “Knowing about conservation is something you can grow up with.”
She wrote the book so children could adopt these habits at an early age, perhaps even telling their parents to inspire real results.
The freshman, majoring in health and humanity, first found her passion for the ecosystem as a child.
“We used to go fishing every year,” said Lisa Hestrin Lerner, Alison’s mother. “One year, the lake was closed because of pollution … and I explained to her what that was, and she was just so sad.”
“She just wanted the fish to have a place to live,” Lisa said.
As Alison grew up, she headed projects like holding a canned food drive in her kindergarten classroom to benefit manatees, starting a compost pile in her backyard during middle school and organizing beach cleanups in high school. She still organizes events and serves as the Earth Week and special events officer for the USC Environment First Club.
“[Alison] was part of a group of tremendous kids,” said Helen Tarleton, senior communication manager of Coca-Cola, including former Olympians and distinguished health professionals dedicated to healthy lifestyles.
It was all of Alison’s hard work that earned her the privilege of running with the iconic Olympic torch. For about a quarter of a mile, She carried the three-and-a-half-pound propane torch in the small town of High River, outside of Calgary, Canada stopping to give the occasional high five or take pictures with some of the locals.
“I was behind the camera the whole time,” said Jonathan Lerner, Alison’s older brother. A junior majoring in biology and political science at USC, Jonathan watched his younger sister grow up while they attended the same schools.
“She was really shy growing up,” he said. “She really just wants to make a lasting difference … to do great things. Just seeing her going from to so shy to superstar, shaking hands and being part of that world wide stage and taking to it so naturally … was something else,” Jonathan said.
“I could not stop crying,” Lisa said. “It was just a moving experience to see all these people come together for peace and friendship — and my daughter was a part of that.”
Jonathan called Alison’s opportunity to bear the torch a reward for all of her passionate work. He and Lisa traveled with Alison in January for the event, which ended in a cauldron-lighting ceremony, a spirited, peaceful celebration in the small Canadian community.
“It’s such an old tradition that brings people together from all around the world,” Alison said about her experience running in High River.
Alison still plans to keep fighting for the environment as she continues her studies.
She kept her uniform from the run as well as the torch, which can never be lit again.
“It’s so you can’t light up your barbecue with it,” she said jokingly.
This well-humored compassion is what sets Alison apart — a compassion her mother believes leads to motivation to make the world a better place.
Her mother recounted what Lerner’s grandfather Earl Hestrin, a 1949 USC graduate, said to her regarding his granddaughter’s accomplishments.
“I’m so proud of my granddaughter. But I wouldn’t expect anything less from a Trojan.”