Talk NERRdy with Ellen Leroy-Reed

Talk NERRdy with Ellen Leroy-Reed

Talk NERRdy to Me is a column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov caught up with Ellen Leroy-Reed, director of the Friends of the GTM Reserve in Florida. They talked about the magnetic pull of a mission-driven workplace, why biodiversity is about more than habitats, the challenges and rewards of striving to be a GTM for All, and what happens when your parents say: “No, Ellen, you can’t go to New York to join Comedy Central when you’re 17.”

Nik: How long have you been the director of the Friends of GTM Reserve?

Ellen: It’s coming up on four years at the end of July.

Nik: That’s a presidential term!

Ellen: I hope I get re-elected. I’ve figured out all the systems around here, so it’s more trouble than it’s worth to get rid of me.

Nik: The power of incumbency. 

Ellen: What has amazed me about this position—I’m kind of the Forrest Gump of my circle, I’ve done a lot of stuff—is that I have never had a job that has been so consistently wonderful. My worst day at the Reserve is better than my best day at other jobs I’ve had.

I don’t work for the Reserve or DEP [Florida Department of Environmental Protection], but I am the most inside outsider at GTM. We really feel like a family. We have Zoom hangouts on Friday afternoons and play trivia and have a grown-up beverage. We don’t have to do that. We’re off the clock. But it’s something we crave: conversations that start with ‘What are you doing on the weekend?’ and usually end with ‘GASP! We should do this new program for kids on the trails…’ 

Nik: How’d you find GTM?

Ellen: I knew nonprofit work was what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to fall. Before GTM, I worked with the American Heart Association, and before that I was in marketing, business development, and communications. I was in the construction world for many many years. That was where I got very involved with the US Green Building Council (USGBC). I became the first marketing and communications person in the state of Florida to receive their LEED accreditation!

Nik: Is that what you were interested in? Why green building?

Ellen: No, not at all! When I was a kid I wanted to be a comedian.

Nik: No!

Ellen: My claim to fame is I was offered an internship with Comedy Central when I was 17, and my parents said no, I was not allowed to move to New York. I still blame them that I’m not Amy Pohler. But I do think my talent was in storytelling. So I got into marketing, communications, and selling stuff. 

Nik: The more profitable way to tell stories.

Ellen: Yeah. Ask my cousin who’s a struggling stand-up comedian and sleeps on a lot of couches. When I got involved with the USGBC, I really fell in love with a mission-driven organization. I started my own consultancy. Then the American Heart Association. But I’m a jack-of-all-trades, so being forced to do one specific job was not gratifying to me. 

Nik: You should be an executive director!

Ellen: Yeah! When I saw the listing for this job at GTM, I had lived in the area for over 10 years and had never heard of the Reserve. I worked with people on climate change and sea level rise, and I had not heard of GTM! I had a professional connection with a board member who thought I would be perfect, but he said “you have no biology background, do you?” and I had to say ‘Nope. I’ve been camping. I went fishing once!’ 

Nik: Why GTM?

Ellen: The people are extraordinary. The staff, the volunteers, the Friends. They are genuinely passionate about this place and chose this work because they love it. And because they love it, they are always looking for ways to do it better. There’s this camaraderie and collaboration—they know they can do better by asking for insight, by being wrong, by being vulnerable, by being humble.

Here, we’re loyal to the mission of preserving natural biodiversity. If you wake up and everything on your work list that day doesn’t get you closer to that goal, what are you doing? Even when things are stressful, you know you’re going to be surrounded by people that have that beautiful mindset.

Ellen with her family: husband Fred (right) and two of her three children, Libby (left) and Will (center).

Nik: Before the pandemic, before systemic racism was brought to our attention once more, you were already working on access and equity issues at GTM. How did you all get there before the rest of us?

Ellen: When you’re in love with a place, you want other people to love it. Our mission has always been to protect and promote natural biodiversity and resources using science, education, and stewardship. That word, biodiversity, kept coming up for us. We talked about an ecosystem, where plankton is as important as a shark. Maybe not as sexy or cool, but as important. And as we were talking about biodiversity, someone pointed out: we’re not very diverse. We have a diversity problem in our own halls. When I go to the annual meeting, I look around and say “boy, we are homogenous.” We do not represent the communities we serve.

GTM is part of a larger watershed. We serve a whole region. We wanted to challenge ourselves. So we asked: ‘who’s not coming here?’ People in wheelchairs, students with autism—but we didn’t know how to work with them. We had started to work with people who are low-sight or blind, low-hearing or deaf, but we didn’t have programs organized around helping them. So we were failing our community. 

Nik: But, but, but… how can you justify spending resources to reach such small segments of the overall population?

Ellen: There are a million questions about what programs we can create. We decided to just ask the community! Novel concept. A NERRA National Assistance Program grant helped us facilitate a workshop that led to an initiative we call GTM for All. Saying we’re going to try to serve everybody goes against everything we know about programming. But at that point we were not ready to exclude. It was about low-hanging fruit we could implement quickly to help people.

After the workshop, a representative from the ARC [nonprofit that serves and advocates for adults with intellectual and developmental differences] brought five adults with developmental disabilities came to our visitor’s center after hours  so they could do it in their own time, on their own terms. We were able to do it for no cost, and now they come once a month. This is one of their favorite places to be because of that $0 initiative. 

We brought in a group from a local Title I elementary school. We told them “we’ll pay for the bus, lunch, and snacks. We’ll put on activities. Just get yourself to school on Saturday by 8:00 AM. Bring mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—just fill the bus and come out. There were kids who saw the beach for the first time in their lives. And it was 30 minutes away! They asked if they were allowed to go to the beach or if they had to pay. I believe that day is going to stay with those kids. And it only cost us $800. That’s not a lot of money to, in my humble opinion, change a life. 

Nik: And all of those sub audiences do make up the community, the cultural biodiversity. But it’s not always so easy. You recently put out a Black Lives Matter statement and led the Friends & Foundation sector of the NERRS in thinking about these things. How did that go?

Ellen: I had one person unsubscribe from my email list. Otherwise, positive responses. We wanted to get that message out quickly, but it’s not in our culture to rush something out the door. We monitor and do research, we think about stuff. It’s my job as the non-scientist to be a little more aggressive. This makes some people a little bit uncomfortable. So there was a little bit of dynamic tension on how to do this. 

What I heard over and over again was, “we do not want empty platitudes. We do not want another message on a black background in white Helvetica with our logo at the bottom saying “Our hearts and thoughts and prayers go out to…” or “We will continue the conversation…” because it’s been 401 years of conversation. We can’t just keep talking. 

So we put together a list of things the Friends could pledge to do. I wish there could have been more. But I knew if I could just put some things down on paper, and if we could put that out to the world that we would be held accountable. So in a year, when people say, “what did you do?” It won’t be empty platitudes. It’s not easy to move forward on some of this, because our community is 94% white. Unfortunately we have a lot of white people sitting around a table trying to figure out what to do about systemic racism.

Nik: Hey, I’m in Kennebunkport, don’t worry about it.

Ellen: We have to be vulnerable, we have to be wrong, we have to admit our own stereotypes, we have to admit our own privilege. When we first started working on GTM for All, I really thought I had hit all communities—the aged, people with mobility issues, blind, deaf, autism, developmental disabilities, people at economic disadvantage.

Who did I not specifically address? People of color! I grew up a poor kid, and when I looked for underserved communities, that was where I looked. And that was my own stereotype. And I was wrong! And now I’ve been able to look at myself and say “yeah, that was my whiteness getting in the way of true discussion and moving forward.” Being able to have those difficult, open, honest conversations is what I hope is going to get us closer to real change. 

Nik: Nothing else can!

Left: Ellen with colleague Alee Knoll, a biologist at the Reserve. Right: Ellen with another “colleague,” one of the Reserve’s educational critters.

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GTM Volunteers Earn Point of Light Award

GTM Volunteers Earn Point of Light Award

GTM volunteers Ruben Allen (left) and Jeff Finnan (right) received national recognition for their service in the areas of research, education, and community outreach. 

Like all of us, Florida’s GTM Reserve gets by with a little help from its friends. This month, two special friends and dedicated GTM volunteers, Ruben Allen and Jeff Finnan, received the national Daily Point of Light Award for their outstanding community service.

“Volunteers like Ruben and Jeff are the boots on the ground and eyes in the field for us at GTM; we couldn’t do the work we do without  volunteers,” says Shannon Rininger, volunteer coordinator at the Reserve. “They are an extension of our staff. We rely on them to be dependable and efficient and they deliver.”

The Daily Point of Light Award was established by the late President George H. W. Bush to recognize extraordinary volunteers who donate their time and talent to better their communities. This award has inspired and recognized thousands for their voluntary service and the impact they have on communities around the world.

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From April to October, Ruben Allen walks seven miles of GTM’s beaches every week as a member of the marine turtle patrol. He also serves as the lead on fisheries and oyster monitoring, and nekton surveys. This work inspires Ruben to share his love of this area with everyone through GTM’s education and community outreach programs. He is instrumental in educating more than 4,000 students a year, along with teaching “GTM for All,” which promotes greater accessibility to GTM for visitors with unique needs, such as those with vision and hearing challenges. 

“I love seeing the smiles on children’s faces when they touch fish or other wildlife and they realize it’s not going to hurt them, and that it’s fun and they actually learn something about it!” he says.

Ruben inspires these students to take an interest in environmental issues through hands-on experiences, like pulling a seine net through the Guana Lake. He also assists with education’s virtual reality (VR) long-distance learning program, which brings the estuary to teachers and students with the aid of headsets. In 2019, Ruben received GTM’s 2019 Volunteer of the Year Award.

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In less than two years as a volunteer, Jeff Finnan has dedicated more than 400 hours to the GTM Reserve. Much of that time has been spent on a boat in the ever-changing Florida weather, collecting nekton data. He also assists with the oyster and marsh monitoring and water quality data sampling. Jeff shares his appreciation for the estuary by leading monthly hikes for GTM’s education program, teaching the public about the Reserve’s natural and cultural history, and community outreach at local festivals. 

“Besides giving back, volunteering at the GTM NERR has brought me a new understanding and better appreciation of my local environment,” he says. “Then there is the camaraderie that comes with working with the research, education and stewardship folks here, along with the joy of exposing the public to estuary. Oh yeah, then there is that occasional free boat ride! Can’t beat that.”

Science is for everyone at GTM

Science is for everyone at GTM

Thanks to NERRS programs, educators and students can sign “estuary” and other coastal science terms. All photos courtesy of the GTM Reserve.

Every year, nearly 250,000 people enjoy the dynamic landscapes of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Research Reserve. Some come to learn, others to fish, and many more to simply enjoy being in one of the most beautiful places in Florida. But that’s not enough for the Friends of the GTM Reserve or Josie Spearman, the Reserve’s education coordinator. Their goal? Create opportunities for everyone to experience the Reserve and benefit from its programs.

“Almost 15 percent of residents in the greater Jacksonville area have a disability that can prevent them from experiencing GTM,” says Ellen LeRoy-Reed, executive director of the Friends of the GTM Reserve. “There are many children and adults with visual, hearing, developmental, mobility, and cognitive challenges that can make it difficult to visit our Reserve or participate in our programs.”

In response, the Friends launched GTM for All, a two-year, multi-strategy campaign to make Reserve programs and amenities more accessible and inclusive. In support of this, Spearman held a special Teachers on the Estuary (TOTE) training last summer that introduced new techniques for communicating science into local classrooms.

“I wanted to demonstrate how science can be communicated to a much wider range of audiences, regardless of their perceived challenges,” says Spearman. “This training gave teachers the tools to help students have life-changing experiences while exploring our ecosystems.”

The four-day training focused on how to interpret data for students with physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges and those who lack transportation to GTM. It introduced American Sign Language (ASL) versions of education programs that included closed captions and translators for teachers who were deaf or low-hearing, and it provided virtual reality experiences as an alternative to onsite programming. Teachers also had a chance to test water quality monitoring equipment adapted for blind or low-vision students and brainstorm how GTM could improve its education programs.

“By making these materials and resources available, the Reserve is demonstrating the kind of inclusive education that science should strive for,” said Will Clifford, one of the TOTE participants.

“Over eight years, I have visited GTM many times, with and without students,” says another participant Kathryn Hutchinson. “Through this seminar, I gained a deeper appreciation for the Reserve and its people. It led me to pursue writings about the natural world more deeply, as well as methods of scientific illustration, which are informing my work with students this year.”

The teacher training has been catalytic for the GTM Research Reserve, which recently received KultureCity’s Sensory Inclusive Certification. 

“We now view all our activities, events, and programs through the lens of accessibility and inclusivity,” says Leroy-Reed. “We want to have more ASL interpreters at more events, provide ASL training for staff and volunteers, and host more inclusive events.”

Spearman plans to build on the TOTE’s success to grow the Reserve’s virtual reality program to include content on other habitats, engage different grades, and work with a local school to adapt the program for students with autism. She envisions using “talking” water quality equipment, specialized text-to-speech equipment, and other strategies to enhance GTM’s education programs.

Partnership is key. “We are reaching out to more organizations within our community to increase inclusivity, including the Vision Education and Rehabilitation Center at Florida State College at Jacksonville,” says Spearman.

Help From Our Friends: GTM Reserve

Help From Our Friends: GTM Reserve

Video courtesy of Ellen Leroy-Reed, Executive Director, Friends of the GTM Reserve.
Back in the nineties, Joan Becker was at a crossroads. Personally and professionally, her life was changing and she was “stressed out.” Sitting in a doctor’s office, she read an article about sea turtle conservation that changed her life. Today, she’s a member of Sea Turtle Patrol at Florida’s GTM reserve. She gets up before dawn and works through the hot sun to protect the thousands of loggerhead hatchlings that make their way from the Florida coast to Europe and back—a journey that can take 30 years. Joan is one of many reserve friends who have found fulfillment through citizen science at GTM, tackling issues ranging from microplastics and phytoplankton to butterflies, birds, and sea turtles.

Watch Joan’s story: https://youtu.be/dFz9g3Z-7S4

Mapping Water Quality

Mapping Water Quality

Photo courtesy of Tricia Kyzar.

There are many reasons to work at a reserve, but few can beat Tricia Kyzar’s.

“I’m interested in water quality because I’m an avid kayaker, especially of springs and estuaries,” says the University of Florida graduate student. “Someone told me I should find a way to ‘work from my kayak,’ and this seemed like an amazing way to ensure the places I like would be as beautiful as possible.”

Kyzar is mapping pollutants in the waters of Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve. Her goal is to identify their sources and help reduce their impacts on water quality. She became involved when she volunteered to do a GIS project that would hone her spatial analysis skills and help her connect with other people who are interested in water quality.

“Using spatial analysis to produce site specific statistical information can tell us a lot about why something is happening in one location but not another,” says Kyzar. “I’m coming at this from the technology side, so I have learned a lot about what makes for good and bad water quality; it’s like taking chemistry and biology all over again, but a lot more fun this time!”

Kyzar is using System-wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) data to display water sample tests in different locations on a map. She layers this data with other types of information, including land use classification, soil drainage, and amount of rainfall. This comprehensive dataset supports a statistical analysis of whether these factors have a relationship to the presence of fecal coliform, nitrogen, phosphorus, or other pollutants. Understanding those relationships can help Kyzar and others stop these pollutants from entering the estuaries and develop related public education programs.

Kyzar will complete a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning with a certificate in GIS this fall and continue with a Ph.D program—with work at the GTM reserve—in the spring. “Working for the reserve is amazing,” she says. “I really like that what I am doing will contribute to solutions to improve the natural environment.”

Beyond Academic: Graduate Research Supports Oyster Management in Florida

Beyond Academic: Graduate Research Supports Oyster Management in Florida

Carrie Schuman grew up within driving distance of several New England reserves, but she didn’t get a chance to appreciate how special they were until she conducted her dissertation research at Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve.

“Collaborating with a NERR is a wonderful experience,” she says. “Now that I have opportunity to work within one, I appreciate the nationwide effort the whole NERR system entails. The quality data, staff, and resources have provided me with the invaluable opportunity to pursue interesting and impactful research.”

An ecology PhD student from the University of Florida, Carrie is interested in the oyster—a high value, keystone species that provides myriad ecosystem services in the estuaries of Northeast Florida. Her research is focused on better understanding how the oyster’s capacity for filter feeding relates to water quality. She is also exploring the use of, and perceptions around, oysters by three groups; commercial oystermen, recreational oystermen, and recreational fishermen who target finfish near oyster reefs. Her goal is to understand what makes a desirable reef, how reefs are being utilized spatially and temporally, and how these groups think about other benefits of oysters.

Carrie’s work supports the goals of the Oyster and Water Quality Task Force of the Guana, Tolomato, and Matanzas Rivers. This voluntary group of agency, academic, and community stakeholders has a collective goal of understanding and addressing local shellfish and related water quality issues so they can improve management of oyster habitat and estuary health. Reaching this goal depends on access to local research—a need that has made the NERRS Graduate Research Fellowship a critical resource for its ability to support researchers who, like Carrie, who are focused on local management issues.

ReservesGuana Tolomato Matanzas, Florida