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Sanibel Sea School grows up

By Staff | Jan 21, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED Dr. Bruce and Evelyn Neill

For 10 years, we dreamed of creating a place where young kids could pursue the allure of the sea. We imagined a school where discovery and exploration would create a bond with nature – a bond strong enough to last a lifetime. We imagined a place where kids could see, touch and experience the world around them as they grew.

Our first attempt to create that was on the shores of Manini Beach, in Kelalakeakua Bay, on the island of Hawaii. With a fabulous faithful partner we purchased a plot of land only to discover that our neighbors were not well-suited for a small ocean school next door. We sold our interest in that land and shelved our idea as we developed careers and had kids.

A relocation to the east coast very quickly led us to Sanibel with our young family to explore the ocean and escape the pace of New York City. We immediately realized Sanibel would be a great location to build that institution of our dreams where kids discover themselves through ocean exploration. For five years, we visited Sanibel, always thinking “we should really do that school thing,” but each time we returned to lives too full to do more. Sept. 11, 2001, made us realize that the things we really want, and believe in, shouldn’t be ignored. Life is too uncertain to ignore valuable dreams. So, we created a non-profit organization and settled on the name Sanibel Sea School.

We started with a keen vision, a second mortgage on our home, a little leased building, and used bus we bought from the Miccosukee Nation. We would take anyone out who was willing to go. Along the way, we found allies and supporters who shared our vision of loving kids and helping them forge a better future for our oceans.

We pushed young people; we believed in them. We worked with young teachers to help them be better in their careers.

A dozen or so years later, we are blessed with many partners and supporters who share the notion that kids profoundly benefit from a relationship with nature. Evelyn has commuted back and forth to New York to support our family as we built this institution. Our life with the Sanibel Sea School has been rich, rewarding and exhausting.

As the founders of an institution, we believe we have an obligation to grow it to a strong vibrant state, and then pass it to a new leader to usher in the next wave of great things. Precious conservation resources should be used wisely, and cooperation is the best strategy for non-profits. A combination of the Sanibel Sea School and Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation is a superb way to maximize our combined impacts on conservation. We believe this is the best way to ensure a sustainable future for the Sanibel Sea School, and the best way for us to serve our community.

Families are messy and complex – but our most important treasure. They are especially challenging when two careers are intertwined. In the midst of our discussions for the combination of the SCCF and Sanibel Sea School, Evelyn was offered a position that was too good to pass up – a potential capstone for a long-dedicated career. Only it is in California.

With enormous support from so many of you, we have been lucky enough to build a strong vibrant institution that proudly serves our community, helping preserve our natural resources for future generations. We have combined this business with another strong community conservation organization. Now, it is time for us to pass the institution to new leadership, who will help guide it to a new improved future.

Late this summer, Bruce will retire from the Sanibel Sea School and move to California. This spring, the SCCF will conduct an extensive search for a new leader of the Sanibel Sea School who will take environmental education to new heights.

We thank the many people who helped us create this vibrant, sandy Sanibel institution. It has been an extraordinary gift to see our dream take shape. We look forward to seeing how it will flourish in the future. And we know that future will be extraordinary.

Dr. Bruce Neill is executive director and co-founder and Evelyn Neill is co-founder of the Sanibel Sea School. The non-profit organization’s mission is to improve the ocean’s future, one person at a time. For more information, visit sanibelseaschool.org.