Vegetarianism pays

Area teen parlays animal-rights activism into cash for college

click to enlarge Ryne Poelker, 18, of Petersburg. - PHOTO BY R.L. NAVE
Ryne Poelker, 18, of Petersburg.

There are all kinds of scholarships just for having an interest in an obscure field or merely being something unusual — tall, a little person, left-handed, or being named Gatling, Van Valkenburg, or Zolp. Ryne Poelker of Petersburg actually did something to earn his unique scholarship.

The Vegetarian Resource Group, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that promotes vegetarianism, awarded Ryne a $5,000 scholarship for “his hard work in organizing and taking part in food drives, events and demonstrations related to vegetarianism.”

Poelker, a 2009 grad of PORTA High School in Petersburg, says he heard that the Phoenix Center, a Springfield organization that performs community education and testing for sexually transmitted disease and provides outreach to the local GLBTQ community, is often in need of food donations.

“They’d done so much to help me, I wanted to help them back,” Poelker says.

So the teen organized a half dozen vegetarian food drives — consisting of mostly canned vegetables and fresh produce donated by Food Fantasies — for the Phoenix Center and other local nonprofits since fall 2008.

Even though he’s lived in rural Sangamon County around farm animals his entire life, Poelker began practicing vegetarianism when he was a freshman. The next year he became a vegan, a vegetarian who in addition to not eating meat doesn’t eat foods that come from animals, such as eggs and milk.

“I started realizing where my food came from. It wasn’t something that happened overnight,” he says.

But the issue was about more than healthy eating. Poelker considers himself an advocate for animal welfare.

“I have no shame in being called a radical,” he says. His animal rights group hosts vegan potlucks and Poelker himself, an active member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has participated in 20 to 30 demonstrations against rodeos, circuses and Kentucky Fried Chicken in the past couple years.

“We’re going to see the end of animal testing, not so much for moral reasons but scientific reasons,” he says, noting that the once-popular arthritis medication Vioxx, despite having been tested effectively on animals, was found to increase the chance of heart attack and was eventually recalled.

He’s also involved in gay rights, environmental and labor movements and frequently pens letters to the editors of both Illinois Times and the State Journal-Register. His activism even influenced his choice of employer, T.J. Maxx, which gets surplus or slightly irregular merchandise from designers — essentially it’s recycled, Poelker says.

Later this month, Poelker will head to the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he’ll study political science and become active in a larger progressive community. That’s not to say he’s escaping central Illinois, however.

For every negative response to one of his protests, he estimates that he receives five positive ones.

“I’ve definitely gotten my share of ignorance but, surprisingly, I’ve also gotten a lot of support,” he says.

Contact R.L. Nave at

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