Preserving the Coast

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 5:00pm
Valerie Kleinschmidt

Valerie Kleinschmidt ’09 enjoys the peace and solitude of a walk on the beach as much as any of us.

But, she really loves telling all who would listen about the importance of preserving those beaches we enjoy and protecting the creatures that often swim near them.

Kleinschmidt is an education and outreach specialist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab on the Alabama coast. Her position is funded through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Services Center to work for the Gulf of Mexico Alliance’s Environmental Education Network (EEN).

The DISL primarily serves the 21 four-year colleges and universities of Alabama through its college summer courses and graduate programs of University Programs. The lab’s educational mission also includes Discovery Hall Programs, which encompasses K-12 field programs, teacher-training, and public outreach.

“The underlying purpose of my job is to educate people about the value of the ocean and how they can be personally involved in keeping the Gulf healthy and resilient,” Kleinschmidt said. “We are our environment and the more people who care about the world around them and act on it, the better off we are as a people.”

Kleinschmidt’s work includes managing grants throughout the five Southern states centered on the Alliance’s priority issues related to environmental education. These “on-the-ground” projects bring people of all ages outdoors to learn more about how to be good stewards of the Gulf. She assists in promoting these programs and reporting to NOAA on their progress.

The tragic oil spill in April 2010 afforded Kleinschmidt the opportunity to volunteer with the “Share the Beach” program and help nesting sea turtles on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. The group moved turtle nests to Florida’s Atlantic Coast and also participated in the clean-up efforts and served as wildlife observers for night operations.

“The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest in America’s history and was a fearful and unsure time for the Gulf Coast,” Kleinschmidt said. “We were constantly putting out information to people on who to contact in their state, where to find specific information, and how to help by volunteering or donating money.”

Kleinschmidt manages two Web sites: one for the EEN and one specific to Sea Lab projects for underserved and underrepresented populations. The site includes announcements on coastal community events, organizational meetings, volunteer opportunities, funding sources and job openings. Kleinschmidt also conducts quarterly information “call” that is set up similarly to a radio program featuring a guest speaker or experts on environmental education.

The love of the sea came easy to Kleinschmidt. Her father worked as an engineer and his jobs took the family to different places including Virginia, Rhode Island and Alabama. Living near the ocean in most of those places was a big plus, she recalls. “I really love the outdoors so I spent a lot of time exploring the woods near where I lived. I grew up swimming and riding horses.”

When it came time to select a college, Kleinschmidt received a tip from her father about a small college in Mobile, Ala. “My dad was the first to tell me about SHC after reading about the college in U.S. News & World Report,” Kleinschmidt said. “I decided to check it out and came for a tour of the campus. How can you not fall in love after walking down the avenue? I did have my top three choices, but the visit really sold SHC for me. Spring Hill is special because of the people. I felt a sense of belonging there and made lasting friendships I greatly cherish.”

So, while the work continues at those special places like the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to protect our seas and their inhabitants, what does the future hold for Kleinschmidt?  “I like to be open to new opportunities and decide on a plan when the possibility feels best,” she said. “I trust in 10 years I’ll be exactly where I’m supposed to be.”