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Neill’s big risk paying off for the future of the ocean

By Staff | Jul 27, 2016

Evelyn Monroe-Neill and Dr. Bruce Neill, helped celebrate the Sanibel Sea School’s 10th Anniversary during the 2016 Octifest Fundraiser, which was held on the Causeway Island earlier this year. BRIAN WIERIMA

There is a photo hanging on the wall inside the facility of the Sanibel Sea School of its founders, Dr. Bruce Neill and Evelyn Monroe-Neill, which although not prominent, is still recognized by many who walk through.

The long-term goal of Dr. Neill’s, though, is to change that someday.

“What I want to see sometime in the future, is to have that photo of Evelyn and myself somewhere back in a dusty old corner of the Sanibel Sea School, and everybody walk up to it and not know who it is of,” Dr. Neill said. “My ultimate goal is to make the Sanibel Sea School sustainable over the course of the long term and someday pass the baton on.”

But it’s the first 10 years of the existence of the Sanibel Sea School in which the Neills can be proud of. The non-profit entity, which was incorporated in 2005 and started business in 2006, has blossomed over the course of the last decade after the Neill family jumped into their lifelong dream headfirst.

The first spark which eventually blossomed into the Sanibel Sea School, started on the beaches of Turks and Caicos Islands, where Bruce and Evelyn met and fell in love.

Dr. Neill was teaching at the Center for Marine Resource Studies, which was a school for field studies for students studying abroad to learn coral reef biology, as well as a full slate of classes for a semester, while Evelyn was on a well-deserved vacation after helping open a big advertising agency in Amsterdam.

“Studying at the Turks and Caicos Islands changed the students’ lives, they left as different humans,” Dr. Neill said. “All these kids came to us, simply because they loved the ocean. Evelyn and I thought wouldn’t it be great to have young kids come to a school because of their love for the ocean? That was the beginning of the Sanibel Sea School.”

Although it would be a lengthy road to accomplish that dream, persistence paid off. Dr. Neill’s background in marine biology was planted in the waters of the Keys and Bahamas, while growing up in Miami. His family eventually moved to Thomasville, Ga., which was just on the northern side of Tallahassee on the panhandle of Florida.

As a 13-year-old, he purchased a 14-foot aluminum boat and explored the salt marshes of the panhandle.

After a short stint in college pursuing a business degree, in which he quit because he was “absolutely miserable with the concept”, he decided to earn his zoology major.

That led to gaining his Master’s degree in coral reef biology and sea urchin behavior on Guam, and later completed a Ph.D. in conservation biology at Montana State University.

He taught at a small liberal arts college on Hawaii for five years and one year teaching at a community college in Bend, Ore.

Evelyn dubs herself as a “marine biology groupie”, after growing up attending sea camp in the Florida Keys and working there for seven years.

She eventually found a successful career in advertising, where she has been a creative director for such mega-companies as Nike, Microsoft, Coke, Visa and Glass Is Life.

The duo moved around to such places as Portland, Ore., and Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii.

That dream of opening a sea school kept tugging at the Neills, and they made their first stab of completing it by buying a piece of land at Kealakekua Bay, along with a partner.

“Hawaii ended up being just too much, so we ended that (venture) and put it back on the back burner,” Dr. Neill said.

Next up was New York City, where Evelyn worked at a big advertising agency and Dr. Neill became a stay-at-home father to their two daughters, Abby and Emma.

“But we both always were looking at ways to get back to the warm ocean,” Dr. Neill said. “Both of us visited Sanibel as young children, so we started coming here two or three times a year. The first step we took on Sanibel together, we thought it would be a great place to set up a sea school.”

That was in 2000. Life and its busy aspects kept the dream at bay, but each time the Neill family visited Sanibel, the conversation would spark back up about establishing a sea school on the island.

Then, 9-11 happened.

“Evelyn worked three miles away from the World Trade Center and 9-11 literally changed thousands of peoples’ lives,” Dr. Neill said. “This was an important moment for the formation of the Sanibel Sea School.”

After four years of coming to Sanibel on vacations, Dr. Neill said Evelyn finally put tread on the tires to accomplish their dream.

“She said we’ve been dreaming about this for a long time, why are we not doing this?” Dr. Neill recalled. “So we sat down and wrote out the reasons to why and why not do it. Every reason not to do it, was based on money. So, we did it.”

The couple created a 501c3 in the basement of their New York home and created a board of directors. A close friend of the Neill’s held a fundraiser in his home, which raised $20,000 for the start of the Sanibel Sea School.

Their friend on Sanibel, Charlie Sobczak, who also was a real estate agent and the Florida rep on the Board of Directors, helped the Neills find their perfect starter building, which is now located in the back of the current Sanibel Sea School headquarters.

“We sold our house in New York and bought one here,” Dr. Neill said. “It was a giant risk, but not a stupid one. But we did put it all the line.”

Evelyn, who quit her job in New York, would eventually come full circle, after finding out a salary at the Sea School would not be enough for both to survive on and keep the school open.

Fortunately, the advertising CEO in New York valued Evelyn’s work and offered her to come back to the company. She still has to commute three days a week to New York, and three weeks out of the month, with the rest of the time, working at home.

“Evelyn enjoys what she does and the Sanibel Sea School is greatly blessed to have her talent and her access to great graphics and graphic artists,” Dr. Neill said.

Evelyn’s work stabilized the financial side of the Sanibel Sea School and she has been an integral part of what it is today.

The mission statement of the Sanibel Sea School of, “Improving the ocean’s future, one person at a time,” is coming to full fruition, as well.

“Our main focus, my main drive when we started this, was about conserving the ocean,” Dr. Neill said. “We feel we are changing the lives of these kids, giving them confidence and allowing them to find strengths they didn’t know they had.”

Literally, hundreds of students have passed through the Sanibel Sea School’s doors and for the majority of them, have been affected positively, which ultimately will pay good dividends for the future of the ocean.

It’s been a fruitful 10 years of running the Sanibel Sea School for the Neills and the dream which was hatched on the beautiful beaches of Turks and Caicos is being accomplished.

But it will take a long time before Dr. Neill’s goal of people not recognizing Evelyn and his photo which hangs on the Sanibel Sea School wall, simply because, both have made a permanent footprint in the sands of Sanibel by changing young lives and the ocean’s future.