My experience with environment education in South Carolina really goes back many years. I have watched the ecosystem here evolve and change, although some things remain the same. There are multiple programs throughout the state. Many are unaware of each other. There is a growing awareness of the mental and physical benefits of outdoor experiences and more science has been backing it up. People young and older are not getting outside as much as they once did. There have been links to some long-term effects of indoor, sedentary lifestyles and over-indulgent screen time, some we don’t even know yet. What we do know is that there is a great deal of good that can come from learning about the natural world.
I grew up outside. We had an empty lot next to my house where I played from the time I was a little kid. My older brothers and sister and I were always playing with the kids in the neighborhood, building tree houses, hiking, biking, or involved in some kind of activity. I found out later in life this made me a much healthier person and expanded my knowledge and curiosity. We were outside all day until the twilight hours. Later on as a teenager, I worked as a counselor at a camp in the Sequoia National Forest. I was the waterfront director where I taught canoeing, rowing, small boat sailing, swimming, and many other waterfront activities. It was my experience teaching kids how to do things outdoors and watching them develop that inspired me. After working at a camp for a while, you see these kids year after year. You see the incredible impact that challenging outdoor activities have on their self-esteem and self-awareness as well as their critical thinking skills and views of the world . It was through those experiences that I realized we can really have a positive effect on the future by educating and improving the lives of children.
When I came to South Carolina, I immediately got a job as a kayaking guide and naturalist with an outfit called Coastal Expeditions. This was a company dedicated to taking people to the outdoors and teaching them about the natural world. This is where I saw the economic impacts of Eco-tourism and nature-based tourism. Coastal Expeditions also ran school programs along with some other outfits. I was also very much involved in the human history of the area and realized how interconnected those two aspects of natural and human history were. Another thing that became clear to me, was that there were a lot of people that had never been on a boat or to the wildlife refuge in any of the places that we worked. There was a lot of ignorance towards the natural world. It also became very clear to me the inequities that were rampant. Primarily the people that came out on the kayaking tours or ferry boat rides were people with financial means necessary to do so. As I began to work with young people in schools, there were many students that were not that young who had never been to the beach even though they had grown-up just minutes away. There were many students that had never even crossed the bridge over the peninsula of Charleston.
A friend of mine,Chris Inglese, started a nonprofit organization that was called the Lowcountry Environmental Education Program. He asked me to be a board member. Sitting on the board of LEEP gave me some insight on what it took to fund and run a nonprofit organization and the many administrative challenges involved. When I sold my investing business in 2006, it freed me up to take a look at other opportunities. LEEP was at a crossroads at that time. I decided to step up and take it over for a while. We were able to create new programming and were able to grow 100% every year. We found new ways of raising money besides events. We also had a major impact on the students that we touched. At this time, I was also a scuba diver for the South Carolina Aquarium. With my hands in so many different things, I was able to build a collaborative program with many of the groups that were offering environmental education programs here in the lowcountry of South Carolina. We created something that was called: the Wetlands Learning Cycle. We just organized a series of existing programs that were already being offered and tied them together to give the students a wide range of experiences that built on one another. Each group would teach the programs they already had. This was a way to build a collaborative effort on the strengths of each organization without a lot of bureaucracy or additional strain on any individual group. Everyone benefited and the program was much more resilient because it was not dependent on any single group.
THE BIODIESEL BUS
One of the biggest challenges that we had was transportation. Realizing that, one of the things that we were able to do was to purchase an old diesel school bus. This bus was hand painted and featured the LEEP logo. I made sure that it was a diesel bus because I also wanted to reduce the carbon footprint, so we ran it on biodiesel. There was not a reliable source of biodiesel in Charleston at the time, so I also got involved in creating a biodiesel distribution company called “OM Fuels”. The bus was a game changer because it allowed us to schedule our own programs and transport the students to various places around the area. Another challenge that we faced was finding a place to park and maintain the bus. I set up alliances with a truck repair company and had various people who helped provide parking, including local Legare Farms.
Another thing that I realized was that there were organizations that had some mandates to do education outreach but they did not have the capacity, experience or staff to do it. One of these organizations was the Stormwater Consortium. They were mandated to do education outreach and were trying to figure out how they could manage it. They reached out to me to help them and LEEP was able to help with that program. Other organizations also had similar issues with education.
The other thing that we managed to do was to coordinate a collaborative effort with multiple groups including: the South Carolina Department of Education, which at the time had an officer environmental education. The project was done in coordination with the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, South Carolina schools, county parks, and our local PBS affiliate: South Carolina Education Television. I was able to do a program where I actually kayaked across the entire state from the mountains to the sea. We had this idea to break things up into what we were calling: Webisode (this was in the early 2000s before there was anything called YouTube or Tik Tok). We broke the regions of South Carolina into different segments. The project could not have been possible without the help of the power couple of Farrah Hoffmire and Mitchell Davis who helped fund, film and produce the entire thing. There are also contributions from Jonathan Cummins, Terry Manier, Ian Downie, Patrick Hayes, and Scott Snider, who’s nature videos have also been featured on National Geographic, PBS, Netflix, and Discovery Channel. For this collaborative effort, we were given the “Innovation in Education Award” by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Again, it was a prime example to see what could be accomplished in a collaborative effort.
Throughout my time working in environment education, it was clear that many people did not even know about each other. There were many other groups that were doing environmental education in the same area that included Earth Force, Charleston County Parks, Earth Stewards, Patriots Point, Charleston Parks and Rec, SC Aquarium and many others. The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation was willing to fund these education projects at the time. The foundation actually hired someone to put together a booklet that was basically a directory of informal education programs in the Lowcountry. This again was before a lot of the digital technology that we have today. Overtime, I realized a lot of groups were reluctant to work together due to bureaucracy, false sense of competition, and lack of time to focus beyond their organization. Overtime, I eventually left LEEP after learning a lot about what it takes to run a nonprofit organization.
I went on to serve on the board of the state organization that was established way back in the 1970s called the Environmental Education Association of South Carolina, EEASC. EEASC was a South Carolina affiliate of the larger umbrella organization called the North American environmental education association, NAAEE. There were other organizations that I participated in called the South Carolina Marine Educators Association and the SC Nature-based Tourism Association. I was involved in several projects with these organizations and headed many large gatherings.
At one of the large NAAEE events, several of us became aware that each of our little organizations may not have the capacity to apply for large grants. We realized that we would have much more strength if we were to apply as an entire region. So we formed a regional alliance that became known as the Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance, SEEA. Through this alliance we were able to apply for a large EPA grant with the opportunity to divide the funding amongst our different state affiliates. These affiliates were experts of the organizations in their own states and they were able to divide that funding up amongst the smaller organizations throughout the states. So, we made a massive improvement in our reach. We contacted programs in our respective states and had them submit applications for the funding. We had different states evaluate programs so that there was no local bias. This allowed us to distribute money through a series of mini grants. This was a very successful model which allowed the EPA to distribute funding across a large region and divide the administration burden among the experts in each state. It also allows the funding to get to programs and be marketed to programs that probably wouldn’t have been able to be located or reached by the national organizations. It also helped us to collaborate together as a region and understand what programs existed in each other’s state and learn about what was working and what was not. It was a great way of building community and spreading information. We applied for a few more of those grants in this manner.
We realized that many of us were facing some of the same challenges. One of those challenges was diversity. We applied and were selected to participate in a program funded by the NAAEE to increase capacity and diversity in environmental education called the EECapacity Project. This required us to put together an alliance of organizations across the state that were both varied ethnically and economically. This list was long and included many associations including Hispanic Association, Hebrew Society, Chinese Association, African Church Network, HBCUs, Rural Resource Counsel, and many more. We partnered with my friends from the SC National Heritage Corridor and Charleston Youth Development Center to implement a 3year study with events all over the state. The results of the program were presented at the NAAEE annual meeting in Ottawa, Canada.
CHARLESTON GREEN PLAN
I became part of the city of Charleston‘s effort to put together a comprehensive “Green Plan”, I ended up serving on the education and energy committees because of my background in those areas. Through working with a multitude of groups, we came up with a plan to try to build a collaborative effort on education in regards to the environment. There were a number of education initiatives that were put in place in regards to educating about where energy comes from and how to reduce pollution. Groups of businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations were involved in trying to collaborate together just to make sure that people were more educated on certain subjects. These were kind of molded into the first plan. The plan did get a lot of pushback because of the political situation at the time in 2009. Later on, we did put together programs with Charleston County recycling and many of the other education groups that we implemented for the next few years.
A book came out that really caught the attention of parents and educators around the world called the “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. It built on a lot of research that was done about unstructured play outside and the effect that it has on the development of the minds of children. The book sparked many movements throughout North America. There was an increased attention given to outdoor education. There was research that showed that it had an effect on ADHD, critical thinking, mental wellness, and many things that we already knew. When this book was released, there was also an effort done in the legislature to promote more outdoor play and more intelligence with the outdoor world. The general wellness of young people in their immune system‘s also was shown to have an effect. There was also research done to show the effects that it had on adults as well as their mental health and their ability to think clearly. When this came out all throughout the country there was a push to pass an act called the “No Child Left Inside” act. This passed in many states and there was some effort to get it passed in some of the southern states like Georgia and North Carolina. South Carolina lagged behind. One of the few bi-partisan legislative efforts to pass in 2012 was an education overhaul which included environmental education. I was involved in trying to get that to go through and help the states get a comprehensive plan related to it. Through that we did a number of collaborative efforts trying to get people involved.
One of the major things that I did back sometime ago was write a rough draft of an “Environmental Literacy Plan” for the state of South Carolina. Environmental literacy plans had been written for many states as part of the new environmental education legislation. Most of the states had their state board of education behind it in combination with environmental groups and other groups in the state. South Carolina, being unique in its own way, needed a plan that not only was written for the state but really gave a comprehensive view of nature and culture in the different regions. Although I wrote a rough draft of the plan, the ultimate goal was to get as many collaborators as possible to put in their input. The idea was to bring in the business community, the education community and environmental groups to set goals for education, conservation, economics and public health. The draft still exists. I put together a list of potential stakeholders that can be added to and invited to develop, approve and adopt the plan. All we need is the will.
What we’d like to get together is the South Carolina Marine Educator Association and the Environmental Education Association of South Carolina to build a comprehensive education plan which includes ocean literacy and environmental literacy.
– Ian Sanchez, GrowPurpose.com