Each year, Soul River Inc. (SRI) considers growth – of the participants, of the organizational structure, of the strategic planning, organizing, and implementation of deployments, and of the financial support that will make all of the above happen. That means applying for grants, negotiating contracts, building relationships with funders and investors, and literally talking our hearts out about the souls of youth and veterans who are impacted by this organization. Never, in my life, did I imagine that I would be speaking in boardrooms to directors or applying for thousands of dollars’ worth of grants just to provide an opportunity and lifeline for veterans like myself. Who knew that it would take a whole lot of historical documentation, statistics, proof of this-and-that, just to get a dozen inner-city youth out of the urban chaos and into Mother Nature’s rich landscape.
There are some days when I think I am the only person left who believes in me. And at the end of that day, I recognize that ultimately it is enough. SRI has been incredibly fortunate to have consistent partners and advocates. We have an Executive Board of believers and dreamers. So, when the political climate changed drastically this year, we knew we would have to apply, negotiate, build, and fight that much harder. Across the many levels of environmental, economic, social, and human topics, our country is becoming united AND divided. The changes have been felt personally and professionally. The wildlife, public lands, aquatic species, various bodies of fresh and salt water, are the essence of the cocoon casing that holds the youth and veterans inside as they grow and metamorphose into butterflies for future generations. It is those very things that are being debated about – the public lands versus private lands debate. But let’s not forget about the people, the community that needs to be connected always for healing and recreation. You may wonder why I am sharing all of this. (It’s definitely not to get involved in a political debate, so save your energy!)
Today’s political canvas has begun to outline the ways that funding trickles down. Soul River Inc. relies on the canvas so that we can paint the picture of today’s concerns and issues in order to empower tomorrow’s leaders to take a stand and advocate.
Awesome Experience visiting Aruthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge and staff!
LEADers with Toni Westland (Supervisory Refuge Ranger of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge), and Paul Tritak (J.N. Ding Darling Wildife Refuge Manager)
Unfortunately, our 2017 started off with multiple partners withholding and freezing funds, rightfully so. They, too, are worried about their future. And, for Soul River, it’s almost like we were in instant survival mode! Out of seven planned deployments, three were at risk for funding. By mid-March, we learned that two of our deployments would be cut because of our funders backing out due to the political ambiguity. Florida Everglades LEAD deployment was one. It was a huge disappointment for our board, and an even larger pill to swallow for Chad, SRI founder and president. But, if you know Chad, you know that he doesn’t stop at “no.”
LEAD was a new concept for SRI to pursue. In recognizing that the organization was seeing youth become incredible leaders within their community, we knew that we would be remiss to not provide an additional launching point that would be a catalyst for their future in college and career-readiness. LEAD is about developing them in more than just getting on the water. Youth today are seeking a change to save the world and be the hero. SRI LEAD was designed to build a foundation in conservation leadership.
Julie Morris (Program Manager for NWRA’s Florida and Gulf Coast Conservation Programs.) Teaching about the issues within landscapes within the evergaldes.
Barbara Miedema (Vice President of public affairs and communications. Sugar cane growers) presentatiing about water issues and farming to the LEADEers
U.S Fish Wildlife Service Water specialist Surveying water quality with youth LEADers
U.S Fish Wildlife Service Water specialist Surveying water quality with youth LEADers in class going over data collected from the field.
LEADers with Mr. James Erskine ( Everglades Coordinator – Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)
By establishing key partners in the conservation and climate change world, and then connecting these youth leaders with the building blocks to network and create synapses of professional working relationships with these key partners, SRI ultimately was wanting to open doors in political, managerial, scientific, and educational fields. This engagement was designed to evoke a thought-processing dialogue on pressing issues and current events that have urgency for a response. SRI was intending to develop a young leader – an ambassador of our environment.
For this deployment’s particular funding to get cut was not obvious to the general SRI public, but it was a serious urge and desire that needed to be pursued given the incredible youth leaders who have developed with SRI over the past few years. This motivated SRI to try to get creative. Chad was on the phone reaching out to organizations who may be interested in sponsoring this deployment opportunity. At first, it seemed discouraging. But then, a light! Simon Perkins of Orvis was wanting to make a donation to SRI and he shared that the organization could do whatever was needed with the funds. Chad saw this as an opportunity to put that donation toward LEAD. This opened the door for Chad to reach out to Joy Blackwood, Urban Wildlife Refuge Program Director of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. Chad and Joy met as Chad has been serving on the National Wildlife Refuge Association board. Joy has been a consistent supporter of SRI and she and Chad have continually explored ways that NWRA can get involved in a deployment. Over a few weeks, Joy facilitated conversations between Chad and other NWRA board members who were also connected to Florida’s refuge system. Like magic, SRI was linked up with Rolf Olsen (Project Leader for Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge), James Erskine ( – aka FFWCC), Toni Westland (Supervisory Refuge Ranger of J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge), and Julie Morris (Program Manager for NWRA’s Florida and Gulf Coast Conservation Programs.) With the financial support and the administrative, ground-zero support, we were able to implement an opportunity of a lifetime. Julie Morris was instrumental in developing the agenda for the last leg of our deployment and for connecting us with other key influencers within Florida’s climate change and conservation world – like Liesa and Russell Priddy (owners of JB Ranch in Immokalee and Leisa also serves on the FFWCC), Jim Strickland (Blackbeard Ranch owner and operator), Erin Meyers (US Fish & Wildlife Service Partners Biologist), Barbara Miedema (Vice President of public affairs and communications. Sugar cane growers cooperative of Florida), Rep. Rick Roth (of Roth Farms in Belle Glade) and Terry & Angela Edelemann (of Integrated Interventions LLC. ) Through these connections, youth LEADers went on an airboat tour, participated in a prescribed fire, surveyed sea turtle nesting during a night prowl, trained for python patrol capture, slogged through swamps, fly fished in Tarpon, and discussed local ecology projects, issues with Florida panthers and impacts to Florida’s fragile ecosystem.
Without the support and efforts of various key partners, SRI youth LEADers would not have had this enriching deployment of a lifetime. We are so appreciative to you and for your support. SRI is already looking forward to re-connecting in 2018 – funds or no funds – where there is a will, there is a way!
Thank you for everyones time, energy and efforts!
Soul River Inc.
All photos are the rights to Soul River Inc. and partners. Please do not take any of the photos respectfully. All photos
© Copyright 2017 Soul River Inc.
Photo Highlights of Florida Everglades LEADers Deployment
LEADer Kolby handling a Burmese Python.
LEADer Tyrell handling a Burmese Python. SRI LEADers Tyrell, Citlalli, Kolby and Gabe handling a Burmese Python.