Q & A

Friends of Myakka River Executive Director Miri Hardy on the Future of Myakka River State Park

"We want to find new, meaningful ways of engaging people."

By Stephanie Churn Lubow March 11, 2024

Image: Miri Hardy

In June of 2023, Miri Hardy was named the executive director of Friends of Myakka River, the non-profit, citizen-support organization for Myakka River State Park. Hers is the first full-time paid position in what had been, since its founding in 1993 by Mary Jelks,  an entirely volunteer-run organization. 

Miri Hardy
Miri Hardy

Image: John Jones

As is often the case, Hardy’s road to her current position didn't follow a particularly straight line. College professor, branding and marketing consultant, potter, wildlife photographer, and social media coordinator are a few of the hats she's worn along the way. Born in Boston and raised and educated through the university level in Israel, Hardy returned to the U.S. to earn her Ph.D. in social psychology from Washington University at St. Louis. After a several-year teaching stint at Gustavus Adolphus University in Minnesota, she decided that her passion was more outside the classroom. Her post-academic life took her to Chicago, Boston, the U.K., and Puerto Rico before she landed in Sarasota in 2014. 

We spoke with Hardy to learn more about to learn more about how a bike riding event led to her position as executive director and her vision for Myakka River State Park, which, thanks to Hardy's efforts, was recently awarded a $24,540 grant from the Athletic Brewing Company to make improvements to its extensive backcountry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What brought you to Sarasota?

 "After seven years in Puerto Rico, my husband and I decided that that chapter of our lives was over and we wanted to look for the next place. We ended up coming to Sarasota and liked it here. I opened up a pottery studio in town and focused mostly on production for a couple of years. After my divorce in 2016, I sold pottery 'experiences,' where people came to the studio to create a handmade piece in one session, and workshops. I was successful with that, as well."

How did you first get into pottery? 

"When I was in grad school, I decided I needed a non-academic diversion, so I signed up for a pottery class, and from the very first one, I was hooked. In all my different moves and career pivots, pottery always came along in some shape or form. When my husband and I moved from the U.K. to Puerto Rico, I opened a studio there. I also started making very niche ceramic products—customized shaving mugs—which I sold on Etsy as well as wholesale."

A fawn rests at Myakka River State Park
A fawn rests at Myakka River State Park

Image: Miri Hardy

How did you get into wildlife photography and education?

"My slow and gradual career pivot followed my divorce and my quest for a new path. I had already started getting into environmental education, and that all began simply from walking on the beach.

"In 2016, a large tidal pool formed on Siesta Beach that trapped fish and became a feeding ground for wading birds. One day I showed up and there were hundreds of birds, and I didn’t recognize any of them. The concentration was just mind-blowing. I’m a researcher by training, and so the learning began.

"Another day I was walking on the beach and I came upon a roped-off area. Some volunteers from Audubon Florida asked me if I’d ever seen a snowy plover chick. I’d never even heard of a snowy plover, but I learned that they are a state-threatened shore-nesting bird whose habitat has been threatened due to development on the beaches. I started following these chicks daily as they grew, and I got out my camera. I’d only ever really used it to take pictures of my pottery, or maybe vacation photos, so it was a new world for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a pivotal experience for me because it ended up shaping my future.

"When the next snowy plover nesting season came around, I volunteered for Florida Audubon and I learned more so I could talk to people about habitat loss and degradation and the different species of birds that nest on beaches. It was so interesting, but after a while, I started feeling limited as to what I could do as a volunteer and I began to look for other organizations here in town that I could get involved with. I also started writing a weekly article about birds for The Observer on behalf of [the nonprofit organization] Save Our Seabirds.

"I just had the desire to do something different, to keep exploring and learning and utilizing the skills I’d picked up along the way—the educational piece, the business aspect, and the writing."

How did you first become involved with Friends of Myakka?

"In 2019, I discovered that I could throw my bike in my car and take it places, and the world that it opened to me was Myakka River State Park. My brain was exploding with all of the exciting things to learn. And Myakka is huge — more than 37,000 acres! I would pedal around on my bike with my camera on my back and stop when I saw something interesting to look at and photograph. It was a full-body experience for my senses. I started studying maps and reading books about Myakka and its history and posting my photos on my Instagram with captions about what I was learning.

"One of the rangers in the park asked me if I would write some articles about biking in the park for the Friends of Myakka River newsletter. That was the first time I heard about the organization."

A flower in bloom at the park.

Image: Miri Hardy

Can you tell us how the pandemic affected the park, and how you began working with Friends of Myakka River? 

"Myakka River State Park was closed from March to May 2020, and when it opened back up, a lot of people got into biking there because they could be outdoors. They would show up with bicycles that had been in their garages for years, and when they got to the park, they’d discover the tires didn’t have air. A ranger friend had the idea to install a bike repair station and to celebrate, and we planned a Bike Myakka Day for the community with refreshments, self-guided biking routes, and a Myakka-centric photo scavenger hunt. Then, because they trusted me to talk about the park responsibly, the Friends of Myakka River board asked me to take on the role of managing its social media. I did that first as a volunteer and later as a part-time gig to reach more people and spread the word about what a gem Myakka is and how important it is for our wildlife, our native plants, and our whole community. It helps build awareness about the challenges the park faces, particularly as the surrounding development encroaches."

How did your position as executive director come about?

"Once I started getting involved with planning events, such as the Bike Myakka Day and doing social media for Friends of Myakka River, the president of the board and I had a conversation about whether creating a full-time paid position might be what the organization needed to achieve the growth it wanted. We started looking for potential [funding] opportunities, and last year we were able to get a capacity-building grant from the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation to help fund the executive director position."

How’s it going?

"It’s been great. It’s fantastic to be able to invest more time in building the [community of support for Myakka River State Park], because when you have more people, you can get more things done. In the past year, we have drawn 136 new members to Friends of Myakka River, which is a 56 percent increase from the previous year. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve attracted the nicest, hardest-working, most fun people."

A group of gators sunbathing at Myakka River State Park.
A group of gators sunbathing at Myakka River State Park.

Image: Miri Hardy

What was the impact of Hurricane Ian on the park?

"When Hurricane Ian hit, the Myakka River was already at flood level. A couple of days later, the river crested at 12.73 feet, which is two feet above major flood level. The floodplain marshes got smacked pretty hard. A lot of trees came down and had to be cleared just to allow access to the roads. The historic cabins flooded and had to be completely gutted and renovated, and a section of the birdwalk was taken out. The park was closed for three months, but once the floodwaters receded, I was allowed to get back into the park and share on social media what was going on because people were freaking out. There was a ton of wildlife everywhere because there were no people around. I was able to be in the park off and on over the next three months during the recovery efforts to help make people aware of the important work that was going on, and how hard all the rangers and staff were working."

What else are you excited about moving forward?

"We have a new program we’re calling Experiencing Myakka’s Magic. One event was an astronomy night in the park, where people came to the park after hours to observe the night sky and learn about light pollution and how it affects natural processes that depend upon the cycles of light and darkness. Another event focuses on the plants of Myakka. We are also going to have a full-moon bike ride. We want to find new and meaningful ways of engaging people."

A butterfly feasts on a flower.
A butterfly feasts on a flower.

Image: Miri Hardy

Do you still make pottery?

"Funny you should ask! I’ve been feeling an itch to get back to pottery again, but just as a hobby and to have another creative outlet. I really enjoy making things."

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