The 29th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference took place from January 9th to January 11th in Naples, Florida this year. While this is the largest annual conference dedicated to discussing restoration, scientific research and projects as they relate to the Everglades–this year was a little different for the Everglades Foundation. Among the conference’s 250 attendees was a special group of people–25 high school seniors–who traveled from Jensen Beach Senior High School located on Florida’s Treasure Coast.
For many of the students, this was their first-ever conference experience. They mingled with environmentalists, conservationists, scientists, elected officials, agency leaders and other decision-makers as they debated and discussed how best to ensure the protection and restoration of America’s Everglades. The Everglades Foundation proudly sponsored the marine science students’ trip to the conference and asked two of the students to write guest blog posts about their experiences. What follows are their personal accounts from the conference:
My Everglades Coalition Experience: A confluence of environmental education and advocacy
By: Annie Majette
Last Friday morning I woke up to a blaring alarm clock. At first, I couldn’t even remember why it was going off, and then it hit me. I was finally going to go to the Everglades Coalition Conference. The months I had spent researching and prepping myself for this event were finally about to pay off.
Once all my classmates and I arrived at Jensen Beach High School we loaded up our luggage and started on our three and a half hour bus ride to Naples. We pulled out of the school parking lot at about 3:50 a.m. and commenced our journey.
When we arrived at the breakfast it was actually a little bit intimidating. It was surreal to see—in real life—all these environmental icons that I had learned about. Clyde Butcher, Brian LaPointe, Patrick Murphy… so many of the people I had spent weeks and weeks studying were all sitting right there in front of me. It wasn’t until a few hours into the day that I realized how much of a “big deal” my class and I were. The amount of times people applauded my class for just being in attendance was unbelievable, and finally I had an epiphany: it didn’t matter how experienced, rich, poor, young or old you were. What matters is how passionate you are to help save an environment that so desperately needs to be saved.
My class had the honor to privately meet with Nathaniel Reed and Maggy Hurchalla. Though it happened on the first day of the conference, it was the most eye-opening and memorable part of my Naples experience. The way they talked about the once breath-taking, expansive naturalbeauty of the Everglades—now reduced to a man-made ecosystem—seemed inhumane. Hearing their stories was something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. Their speeches truly opened my eyes to how much damage needs to be undone in order for my kids, or even my grandkids, to be able to experience this one-of-a-kind environment that only Florida can offer.
Additionally, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, was extremely generous in taking time out of her crowded schedule to talk to my class about her efforts in restoring the Everglades. Despite being one of the highest ranked officials in the nation, she made us feel right at home while speaking with us. The fact that everyone at the conference was so down-to-earth and willing to talk to any one of my classmates truly made my experience there even more rewarding. The opportunity to attend the Conference is one I never thought I’d be fortunate enough to experience. And for that, I am so grateful that the Everglades Foundation sponsored my class trip.
I learned an incredible amount of new knowledge during my visit to Naples last weekend. It became apparent to me that decisions regarding environmental issues are not just in the hands of a single agency. It’s not just the government barking orders at the Army Corps of Engineers–it’s the huge group of non-profit organizations offering their opinions to coalesce environmental concerns with political concerns to help determine the best solution to a problem. I witnessed that you don’t have to be a scientist or a politician to be involved with the environment—as long as you’re an advocate for the environment, you can and will have an impact on the end result.
My Everglades Coalition Experience: Preparation for the future
By: Stephen Barron
Being a part of Mrs. Lucas’s Marine Science II class at Jensen Beach High School has been an amazing experience consisting of becoming one with the unique environment here in Florida. The summer before classes began; discharges from Lake Okeechobee eliminated any opportunities to work in the St. Lucie River–one of the main reasons to sign up for the class.
However, the class became something much more.
Mrs. Lucas started a guest speaker series; everyone from Patrick Murphy and Joe Negron to Nathaniel Reed and Maggy Hurchalla came and talked to the class, preparing us for the pinnacle of our education: the Everglades Coalition Conference. Further preparation required us to make a poster series displaying the past, present, and future of the Everglades. The posters detailed the key players, projects and legislation that had gotten the Everglades to where it is today. When the posters were finished, our class realized that they really looked like something that we could proudly present at a breakout session.
The anticipation and excitement of being a part of the conference made it surprisingly easy to wake up and get on the bus at 3:00 am. Arriving at a lavish hotel, dressed in a suit and ready for the conference, made me feel like the scientist I hope to become one day.
Upon entering the lobby of the conference building, everything felt so right. I was overcome with joy; every plenary and breakout session made me feel like I had made it. All of my education on the environment and the Everglades had led up to this. The most exciting sessions were the private talks given to just our high school class. In a private session with environmental heroes Nathaniel Reed and Maggy Hurchalla, I was captivated by their stories of the work they had done to get this far. And I was honored when they asked us to pick up the torch and continue their work.
My favorite quote of the conference came from Maggy when she said we must keep “pushing the Florida rock up the hill, even when it rolls back on top of you, NEVER GIVE UP.” Everyone is told to never give up at some point in their life—but hearing it from Maggy made we want to get started right away.
Another stand out session was our personal meeting with The Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Sally Jewel. We had not attended her speech at dinner the night before, and I had heard it was good, but it could not have been ant better than her personal words to us. If her goal was to empower the youth—she did it that morning. Having a federal cabinet member take her time to personally express her opinions and goals to a bunch of high school students made us feel important—debunking the idea that the government doesn’t want to listen when, in reality, they want hear from people—especially students.
As an aspiring Meteorologist, I hope to take everything I learned at this amazing conference and use it in my future education and work. I want to be a part of saving the Everglades, and this conference has instilled this hope in me. Anyone can teach the science and politics behind environmental restoration, but not everyone would bring their class to experience it in person. I am thankful to Mrs. Lucas for putting together such an amazing group of kids with the idea of a previously unoffered Marine Science II class. And I also would like to thank Eric Eikenberg and the Everglades Foundation for giving us all the opportunity to attend and experience the conference.
Finally, I would like to thank Nathaniel Reed and Maggy Hurchalla for inspiring and challenging us to save the world. Because of all these people and all these opportunities I can truthfully and proudly exclaim: Challenge Accepted!
All photos by Jessica Hodder