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Topher Jones of the ‘Lonesome Larry Project’: “I need goals or I get distracted”

To be a changemaker the first thing I think you need is passion. Without passion, your ideas will be boring and the work will be too hard. The Lonesome Larry Project started with passion. I love the outdoors and fish, so it was natural to make this my focus. Second, look around and see the […]

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To be a changemaker the first thing I think you need is passion. Without passion, your ideas will be boring and the work will be too hard. The Lonesome Larry Project started with passion. I love the outdoors and fish, so it was natural to make this my focus. Second, look around and see the real problems that are around you. We don’t have to look far to see the needs around us. My idea came while being on vacation doing what I love… learning about fish. Third, don’t wait to become an expert in something, be willing to learn along the way and ask others for help. If you wait to become an expert, you might never take any action. I was 11 years old, and no expert in fish. But, I was able to find experts to help me out! Fourth, believe you can make a difference. You are never too young (or old!) to have a positive effect. Creative solutions don’t always come from the experts. I came up with a really good, creative, new idea, and I believe that kids can make a difference. Fifth, be courageous. Be willing to step out, take risks and be different. Don’t worry about what you might lose, focus on the step forward. I wasn’t worried that starting a business might require hard work, I was excited to try something new.


As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Topher Jones.

Topher Jones is a 12-year-old resident of Boise, Idaho. In 2019, he founded the Lonesome Larry Project to raise awareness and help save threatened fish species like the sockeye salmon. By selling socks, T-shirts, stickers and bottle openers, Topher has raised over 15,000 dollars to help his fish friends this past year. He donates 100% of the proceeds to the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help fund conservation efforts. He is also a 2020 winner of the first Intermountain West Joint Venture Conservation Youth Award and the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

I was born in Boston, Massachusetts and lived there until age 7. I had lots of fun playing in the backyard, which was my own little world with lots of woods around me. After first grade, in 2015, my family moved to Boise, Idaho. I am a kid who likes being active. I enjoy playing with my friends, playing the piano, the violin and tennis… and I love playing hockey. I have also always loved the outdoors. Moving to Boise has been great as it has allowed my family and I to more regularly ski, hike, camp, and fish. I’ve learned a lot about the environment by living in Idaho. I’ve especially learned about fish, more specifically salmon. Salmon are really important here in Idaho as they are born here in Idaho, then travel to the ocean and back again to lay their eggs. I learned a lot of them don’t make it back and that over the years their numbers have declined, and that really bothers me. So, in between 5th and 6th grade, I got the idea to raise money and awareness to help save the threatened Sockeye Salmon and their habitat.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One thing that has had a big impact on me is the program called Trout in the Classroom, run by Trout Unlimited and Idaho Fish and Game. When I was in 5th grade, my science teacher participated in the Trout in the Classroom program. We got to raise trout in our classroom! By doing this, we learned all about fish. I learned about the fish cycle, fish ecosystems, fish anatomy, and their importance to our environment. I thought it was so interesting that steelhead, chinook and sockeye salmon would swim almost 900 miles from their home streams, to the ocean, and back to Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and parts of Canada. This program laid a foundation of knowledge that was very valuable. It is one of the key things that helped inspire me to start the Lonesome Larry Project.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

I sell socks, T-shirts, bottle openers and stickers and donate 100% of the proceeds to the Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation to fund conservation and research efforts to help threatened fish species in the west. I also work to raise awareness that the salmon in Idaho and other parts of the Northwest are in danger of extinction. When people see my socks, or hear the story of Lonesome Larry, I hope that they better understand the fish need our help and we need to do our part to save them. We need to bring people together and come up with solutions to help save our salmon. I don’t want my generation to be responsible for the extinction of the salmon. In my first year of running the Lonesome Larry Project, I have raised and donated over 15,000 dollars to the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation and have helped educate thousands of people on the plight of the salmon.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

In the summer before 6th grade, my family and I visited Stanley, Idaho. I asked my parents if I could visit the nearby Sawtooth Fish Hatchery. Excited that I was interested in the fish hatchery, my parents took me there. With all the information on fish from my school year swimming through my mind, I related to a lot of things at the hatchery. I would often say, “Do you see that fact? I learned about that last year!” We came across a white board that was titled, ‘Salmon Returns’. I looked closely at the board, reading the dates and numbers. I noticed that in 1992, only one sockeye salmon returned to Redfish Lake. I knew that was a big problem, because if the sockeye don’t return to their home streams to lay their eggs, the next generation of fish is lost. We later found out that the lone fish was nicknamed Lonesome Larry. I was really concerned about that number on the board. Only one sockeye returned in 1992. I wondered, how can I help the fish? Then I thought, ‘Socks to save the sock-eye! I could sell socks to save the sockeye salmon!’ My parents thought it was a great idea. That lone sockeye salmon from 1992, along with my learnings from Trout in the Classroom, inspired me to start the Lonesome Larry Project. Salmon are really important to the environment, and I really want to help save them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I think that the most interesting thing that has happened to me since starting the Lonesome Larry Project is that in April, I applied for the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. TheGloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes is a national award that celebrates inspiring, public-spirited young people from across the U.S. and Canada. Established in 2001 by author T. A. Barron, the Barron Prize annually honors 25 outstanding young leaders ages 8 to 18 who have made a significant positive difference to people and the environment. Every year, fifteen top winners each receive 10,000 dollars to support their service work or higher education. In September, I got word that I was one of youth selected for this prize! It was really exciting when I heard that I won the prize as I think it will help me raise more awareness and funding to increase salmon conservation efforts. Also, it was really amazing to learn about the other winners. Young people are doing amazing things to help make a difference. The Barron Prize helps support and encourage us to keep going.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I have had many people tell me that what I do is inspiring to them. Bob Mallard, one of the founders of the Native Fish Coalition, said, “Before he reached his teens, Topher has done more for wild native fish than most adults have done in their life.” A lot of people talk about the problems that we have, but not very many of them go and try to do something about it. I have gotten the word out to thousands of people that the salmon are in danger. Awareness is that really important first step. I also believe that there are thousands of salmon that will be positively affected by my efforts. By raising over 15,000 dollars for salmon conservation projects and raising awareness through many events, public speaking, phone calls and meetings with experts, I am trying to support and connect with many different people to increase the impact and inspire others to join me. I hope that what I’m doing will inspire other young people to act on their ideas and work to make a difference too.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference is when you put work into something you care about and have others react in a positive way. The problems in our world are really complicated, everything we do makes an impact…even the little things. There is a story called ‘The Boy and the Starfish’ that illustrates what motivates me. It goes like this, “One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The youth replied, ‘Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.’ ‘Son,’ the man said, ‘don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!’ After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…. ‘I made a difference for that one.’”

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

To be a changemaker the first thing I think you need is passion. Without passion, your ideas will be boring and the work will be too hard. The Lonesome Larry Project started with passion. I love the outdoors and fish, so it was natural to make this my focus. Second, look around and see the real problems that are around you. We don’t have to look far to see the needs around us. My idea came while being on vacation doing what I love… learning about fish. Third, don’t wait to become an expert in something, be willing to learn along the way and ask others for help. If you wait to become an expert, you might never take any action. I was 11 years old, and no expert in fish. But, I was able to find experts to help me out! Fourth, believe you can make a difference. You are never too young (or old!) to have a positive effect. Creative solutions don’t always come from the experts. I came up with a really good, creative, new idea, and I believe that kids can make a difference. Fifth, be courageous. Be willing to step out, take risks and be different. Don’t worry about what you might lose, focus on the step forward. I wasn’t worried that starting a business might require hard work, I was excited to try something new.

What are the values that drive your work?

I believe everyone and everything has been made for a reason. I also believe that each of us has a purpose for living. One purpose is to not destroy what was here before us. It is our responsibility to preserve what was given to us and to care for our natural resources. It’s too beautiful to lose.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

I need goals or I get distracted. I make a list of things I want to achieve, and check it. I’m competitive, so this is like a self-competition to measure how I am doing and help remind me that what I am doing is good and has a purpose. I also need a balanced life: exercise some, eat right, sleep, be with people, play some, work some, and my mom says practicing gratitude and learning how to not get distracted helps too. She calls it “mindfulness”. I probably need to work on those last ones more. Practicing gratitude really does help calm me down when I am stressed out.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

I can imagine healthy forests, rivers and wild salmon back in abundance. I imagine fishing with my kids and fixing what we have broken. We will have found ways to get clean energy that doesn’t harm wildlife. We will have reversed global climate change and pollution, and learned how to use water wisely. We will have restored our forests, and found alternatives or less impactful ways to do mining. We need to learn how to live sustainably without destroying our natural resources on our home…planet earth.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

My vision is for the wild fish populations in the northwest to return to healthy abundance. In order to do this, I think we have to reverse climate change (reduce greenhouse gases so that our oceans cool), clean up pollution so that habitats in the oceans and rivers return to health. We need to innovate or find an alternative to dams for clean energy, transportation, flood control and irrigation for farming. Dams prevent passage of fish to their home streams. We have to find a new way to manage our rivers and water supply. I believe there are solutions to these problems, but the harder part is convincing people that the way to make things better involves changing the way we are doing things now.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

Kids need more hands-on education where we can really see and experience what we are learning about. That is how the information becomes real and makes an impact. From an early age, we need to learn how to see problems and think of solutions. I’ve heard the phrase, “Innovate or Die”. Things never stay the same, we have to keep coming up with new ideas even when we think we have a solution that works today. I’ve heard typewriters used to be this great new invention, but, I think my computer is a nice upgrade. Just because the typewriter worked for a time, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing forever. As young people, we need to be encouraged and educated in being entrepreneurs to solve the problems we create. Let education help inspire us, just like Trout in the Classroom did for me.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

This is the world we live in, and it is our responsibility to preserve it. We currently are not doing enough to preserve it, and if it continues to be like this, the consequences will be bad for everyone. We need to get together and try to preserve the world we live in. Identify a real problem that is around you and take action.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to have a private lunch or breakfast with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard… we are all founders of our own organizations and committed to helping the environment.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit www.lonesomelarryproject.com and buy a pair of socks from me! People say they are great socks, they fit well, feel good, and help the salmon. You can also follow me on Instagram or Facebook and help spread the word that the salmon need our help.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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