By Katie Shane

It's not often Mary Ottley isn't thinking about her school's Ducks Unlimited Varsity Chapter. As the DU Area Chairman for the Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, Ottley takes every opportunity she has to spread the word about the group's fundraising efforts.

"When will this be published?" she asks while doing a phone interview about the Varsity chapter. "Because we are still selling tickets to our banquet and we also are always looking for sponsors. Maybe someone reading this would want to donate."

The high school junior and her fellow chapter members are certainly not wasting any time as they strive to make their next banquet a success. The committee of more than 75 are throwing themselves into the DU mission and it's paying off for both the organization and the students.

After years of lower-than-expected attendance and interest in the area's high school operation, Ottley and a group of more than a dozen students rallied to rebuild the chapter; bringing in fresh ideas and a new energy. The work paid off and the DU Varsity chapter was ranked one of the top Varsity Chapters in the country.

"A lot of the success has come from the active participation of the group," the high school junior explains. "Everyone has put their heart and time into it, it's not just one person doing the work and that's what makes us very strong."

In 2015, Ottley says that more than 100 students signed up to participate in the school's chapter. With a smaller group of 20 student volunteers working on the banquet committee the group has brought in $82,000 total and $37,000 from the 2015 banquet. Ottley says the banquet, held in the Collegiate School's cafeteria, was paid for in donations and by local sponsors.

"Our goal was to raise maybe $10,000 in the beginning," she explains. "It was a smaller goal but as we started getting more sponsors signed up and saw the potential we had more confidence and drive to make it better; by the end we were shocked."

While the students may have been shocked by the outcome of their efforts, the surprise wasn't felt by everyone. DU Eastern Virginia Regional Director Shawn Kooyman has been working with the group for about a year and says the student's success and commitment to wetlands conservation is no fluke. In addition to their weekly meetings and work on the banquet, the group spends weekends creating wood duck boxes with materials and labor donated by local businesses.

"Not only are these students leaders, but they are great examples of role models, "Kooyman explains. "They all have the same leadership ideas and passion for what they believe in; it's pretty impressive to see students at that age take the bull by the horns."

Equally impressive is the group's sponsorship list, which includes local businesses and parents who have signed on to donate to the cause. Ottley says when she speaks to business owners and potential sponsors she talks about the overall DU mission of conservation and the pay-off the entire process has for the organization and the students. While Ottley says bringing in funding is wonderful, it's the feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction that keep her coming back.

"It is funny because right after the event we got the numbers back and I was feeling a different feeling than I have ever felt. It was different than getting an A on the test. I felt like I had done something real, made a difference," she explains. "A lot of life is going through the motions, it's hard to explain, but it was different than anything because I had made a real impact on an organization and it's a good cause and a good message."