A small idea that led to a mission to Save Our Salmon

Austin Picinich, an 18-year-old participant at First Tee – Greater Seattle, is using his passion for art to paint Save Our Salmon Murals in Seattle, Washington. Today may be Earth Day – but for Austin, every day is Earth Day.

Here is Austin, in his own words:

Living in the Pacific Northwest, nature surrounds me. I enjoy nature outdoors on the golf course and I am currently in my 11th year with First Tee – Greater Seattle.

Off the course, I’m an avid artist.

In 2021, I was selected to attend the Innovators Forum – a leadership summit of 28 teens from First Tee chapters across the country. I spent the week in San Jose, California learning about innovation, leadership, and sustainability. Each of us First Tee students were tasked with developing our own innovative service projects to implement in our communities.

When I learned that Juanita Creek – the salmon-spawning stream less than a minute from my home in Kirkland, WA – had only three salmon return to spawn, I had identified the focus for my Innovators Forum project. But, as a high-schooler, I couldn’t envision how to make a difference; it initially felt like “too big of a problem to solve”.

First Tee encouraged me to think outside the box. I narrowed down the problem: Juanita Creek is hidden in a culvert, and a missing link is neighbors not knowing how to care for the stream. I decided to use my knack for art and passion for the environment to educate my community about Juanita Creek and its salmon.

I found the perfect “canvas” to bring my public art project to life – a 112-foot blank wall along Juanita Creek. I named my project the “Save Our Salmon” (SOS) Mural.

This wasn’t my first mural – in fact, First Tee gave me my first public art experience back in 2019. I painted a mural in the clubhouse of Crossroads Par 3 Golf Course, the course where I started golfing at First Tee – Greater Seattle.

My goal wasn’t just to create a mural that’s nice to look at – but a mural that teaches and inspires my community to protect salmon. I hosted a Community Paint Day leading 170 volunteer painters, ages 4 to 74, to “paint-by-number” the 112-foot blank wall – transforming it into vibrant public art, while teaching attendees how to become better stewards of Juanita Creek.

The Seattle Times summed up my project as, “it takes a village to paint a mural. Sometimes it takes a teen to bring a town together”.

First Tee inspired my confidence as a leader. I stepped up from an artist who enjoyed nature while golfing, to a leader actively protecting nature. I developed confidence in my leadership while a First Tee staff coach at Crossroads.

Since the first mural, I’ve painted two more SOS Murals along McAleer Creek. In total, I’ve led 370 painters and 1,000 event attendees painting 300 feet of “art-ivism” walls.

I tapped into another skill from First Tee: marketing. I’m now currently the Director of Marketing & Communications for First Tee – Greater Seattle’s Junior Advisory Board (JAB) where I create flyers and graphics for JAB.

I create SOS merchandise sold in a dozen local shops. So far, I’ve raised $23,541 with 100% of proceeds supporting stream restoration – an impact that continues long after the paint dries.

In 2023, I’ll be leading five new SOS Murals – with seven new streams each benefitting with a mural – and a projected 4,000 attendees.

Save Our Salmon Through Art is now nationally-awarded – I won the Barron Prize for Young Heroes, and SOS was named one of the top 15 international projects making communities and the environment a better place.

It all started as my idea at the First Tee Innovators Forum, with support from experience I gained from First Tee opportunities in leadership, marketing, and murals.