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Philanthropy Provides Youth Transformational Experiences in Nature

Read how two environmental preservation nonprofits supported by Gulf Coast Community Foundation are providing immersive environmental education programs for students.

Presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation November 21, 2023

Students in the Celery Fields Explorers program at Sarasota Audubon Society use binoculars to view birds and other wildlife.

The sun is shining, the wind is breezy, you can hear the songs of birds up above, and you gaze at big, beautiful trees, roots filled with history. You take a deep breath in and out. These are some of the incredible wonders of being in nature that fill us with joy, peace, and appreciation.

At Gulf Coast Community Foundation (Gulf Coast), we support investing in our environment to offer a brighter future for all, especially the littlest students. While being outdoors is healthy for children’s physical and mental well-being, it also offers educational experiences that can transform their worlds.

“Our children and environment are our most precious resources. Thank you to Sabrina Cummings and Jeanne Dubi for being inspiring nature guides and leaders. We are excited to partner with their successful organizations to create positive outdoor experiences for youth,” said Gulf Coast’s Director of Community Leadership Jennifer Johnston.

For Tomorrow Today

Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, with support from Gulf Coast Community
Foundation, journeys alongside students and their families in nature experiences.

Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast (Conservation Foundation) – currently celebrating their 20th anniversary – has a mission to protect the land and water in Southwest Florida for the benefit of people and nature. The organization aligns with Gulf Coast’s vision of thriving communities with opportunities for all.

Gulf Coast supports Conservation Foundation’s youth educational programming, which provides hands-on nature programming to hundreds of youth each year. Kids experience sandy beaches, lush hammocks, sunny flatwoods, and magical mangrove tunnels. The programming provides free access to underserved youth of all ages in Sarasota and Manatee, giving them adventures in the great outdoors.

Conservation Foundation’s Youth Education Manager Sabrina Cummings inspires youth to explore and enjoy nature.

We sat down with Conservation Foundation’s Youth Education Manager Sabrina Cummings to ask her how Gulf Coast helps make it possible for all students to experience and enjoy nature. Cummings shared, “By helping donors align their values with their philanthropy, Gulf Coast Community Foundation connects philanthropists who care about nature to Conservation Foundation’s mission. In turn, their philanthropy increases equitable access to nature here in our community. My job is to help facilitate a myriad of experiences to connect kids to the natural world. Our programs are built around consistency – not only do we get to see the same kids, we get to grow with them as well.

We not only journey alongside kids on these adventures, but their parents, guardians, teachers, and chaperones do as well. We hold personal and professional development programs for adults—even without kids—to make nature accessible and demystified in advance of outings with the kids. It's fulfilling to know connections are happening, and growth is happening, even when I’m not around.”

Cummings concluded, “I think that nature does without pretense what we want our classrooms to do. We want kids to discover new things about themselves, answer their own questions, learn how to get along with one another, and overcome big and small challenges in a way that sticks. What better place than a dynamic, vibrant ecosystem? What better lesson is watching nature play out, unscripted? One day, I hope people will be so connected to nature that environmental education as a profession is something everyone just does.”

Our Smallest and Brightest Explorers

Sarasota Audubon Society’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity. The Celery Fields is an oasis of restored wetlands and prime birding and wildlife habitat in Sarasota.

In January 2013, Sarasota Audubon Society launched their Celery Fields Explorers program for Sarasota County schoolchildren. Each year, with the continued support of Gulf Coast, they provide education and transportation for public schoolchildren who come to the Fields for environmental education, operated by Around the Bend Nature Tours. During its first nine years of operation, the program has introduced over 5,000 Sarasota County schoolchildren to the environment of the Celery Fields, and it continues.

We sat down with Sarasota Audubon Society’s President Jeanne Dubi to learn more. “Around the Bend Nature Tours uses professional guides to run the Celery Fields Explorers program. The funding that Gulf Coast gives us to get children to the Fields helps immensely. Many of the children in the program come from the underserved community as well and we believe we provide something for those children who wouldn’t be able to get out to the Fields otherwise. Kids are learning what kind of plants and birds are in a wetland, a powerful lesson,” said Dubi.

Through Around the Bend Nature Tours, Sarasota Audubon Society, and Gulf Coast Community Foundation, schoolchildren explore the wildlife up close at Celery Fields.

“There’s no question that the funding provided by Gulf Coast and our members helps tremendously. The grant we receive from Gulf Coast underwrites about 50% of the costs on an annual basis. If we didn’t have the funding, fewer children would have this beautiful opportunity. Gulf Coast is helping us ramp up and keep our education program alive and thriving,” concluded Dubi.

To learn more about Gulf Coast’s renowned environmental initiative, click here.

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