Planning Tourism Cares for South Florida: First stop The Keys

Here I sit in a Miami airport hotel room, feet up for the first time in three days.

What a whirlwind.

The last time I was in South Florida and the Keys, was with my best friend and we had an “intoxicating” kind of vacation. This trip was different: I was here for work and can’t get my job done with that many margaritas. This time, I learned so much and leave with a different perspective on a place I thought I knew.

I am here to continue the search for meaningful volunteer projects for Tourism Cares for South Florida

“The clock is ticking, the pressure is on,” I thought as I landed in Miami on a beautiful, warm Sunday night. I had to find projects that would help our volunteers make a difference.

And boy, did I.

My journey along the Keys began early Monday morning and was navigated by Barry Wray, executive director of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition. Barry showed up as my guide in his Keys uniform: flip flops and a floral shirt - immediately I knew he was legit.

In visiting some of our potential site partners I learned a lot about this coral cay archipelago located off the southern coast of Florida. For example, did you know that only 3% of coral reef remains in the Florida Keys? 3%! Talk about a crisis. That’s why organizations like the Coral Restoration Foundation and MOTE exist. They build coral trees and install them under water to create “coral farms” to help the species spawn and flourish. The Coral Restoration Foundation alone has a goal to install 20,000 new trees this year – their loftiest goal so far–and they rely on volunteer support to get it done.

Imagine you’re on a Keys vacation--a true Keys vacation, not like my last one-- you come here to snorkel, to dive and to see the incredible ecosystems that live underneath the waters off shore. Picture yourself-- instead of just being a passive observer under the water--as an active participant in making the experience better for others while getting an up-close look at sea turtles and reef sharks.

That’s what you can do with the Coral Restoration Foundation , and what a handful of our volunteers will get to do during Tourism Cares for South Florida. They’ll be under water cleaning and installing coral reef trees to ensure the coral survives and future generations will get to see and experience healthy coral reefs right n Florida.

Jess blog pic 3.jpg

I met with many inspiring locals who work to keep the environments on each key thriving and listened to their recovery stories. One of Barry’s friends, a lovely woman named Jeannie whose family has lived in the keys for generations, showed me around her property that had views of the ocean any one would kill for. I saw high-water lines up to my chest in the main house, seaweed in the closets, and completely shattered windows. The damage was so severe that Jeannie decided to sell. The generous buyer is allowing Jeannie a small guest cottage on property that she can still use when visiting from her new permanent home in Cape May, New Jersey. Jeannie’s is a story like many others in the area.

 Many in our industry have spent the last few months bunking with friends or staying in hotel rooms while continuing to do their jobs in the tourism because the Keys are coming back –and guests are heading back to the Keys.

Many hotels have had their doors open since Irma with new properties opening throughout the year. The vibe is positive, and communities resilient with help from organizations like Keys Strong who’ve combined forces with others from Key Largo to Key West. I was fortunate enough to meet with their small and mighty staff who are thrilled for help from our volunteers. We will be their largest group to date, and will clear out debris in the mangroves in neighborhoods like Jeannie’s.

When I walk away from these scouting trips, I always feel a sense of relief because I have a vision of what our volunteer day will look like. This time felt different: I have a vision (with lots of details to iron out) and I also have this incredible feeling of excitement and anticipation. This place, 180 miles of islands, is a community where people know and care about one another deeply. It’s more than intoxicating and I can’t wait for our #TCVolunteers to be a part of their recovery story--to unite and show that we are #KeysStrong.

More details to come as we plan this program; we have some cool possibilities as well! Stay tuned and follow us for more details - @TourismCares.