‘Sea the Reef’ program empowers teens to help environment through hands-on artwork

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. – Thursday is World Oceans Day, a day to celebrate our planet’s ocean and amplify global efforts to preserve and restore it.

Education is in the DNA of conservation.

On the latest Don’t Trash Our Treasure, Local 10 News is spotlighting the Sea the Reef organization, which uses art and underwater exploration to empower South Florida youth, many of whom have never seen the ocean before.

Sometimes in life you have to dive in to discover new things, especially if you’re a South Florida high school student experiencing the wonders of the open ocean for the very first time.

“It was a wild experience and also when I got down there, I caught a fish,” said student Trent Saye. “You only live one life and you got to do it all while you can.”

Sea the Reef is a free program offered by the Deerfield Beach Teen Center, led and designed by the Lele Art Lab.

“We have so many kids that have never been to the beach, especially out on a boat,” said Deerfield Beach Parks and Recreation Program Manager Anthony Carter.

The goal is to empower the teenagers to become a part of the conservation conversation through environmental field trips and hands-on art activities.

Program creator Alexa Simeone has curated the unique learning opportunity, specifically for young Black, indigenous, people of color — or BIPOC — students.

“Art is the best medium to communicate science facts,” Simeone said. “Together, every Tuesday we meet at the teen center and we create art with what we find on our beaches - marine debris, ghost nets.

“One of the biggest problems in STEM education is a lack of learner led education and overlooking BIPOC youth learners. This makes them realize that this too is their coast, this is their ocean, they belong here, just like anybody else. It opens up exposure to other sciences.”

And for the 33 middle and high school students who dove head first into the six month learning journey, the transformation is undeniable.

“I’ve been terrified of the ocean my whole life,” said student Al Garcia. “Seeing all those animals made me think of how much biodiversity is in the ocean, because us humans, we have a large impact on it.”

Added student Taylor Morjan: “When I was learning about coral, all I saw was solid white that had died, that white coral, and that’s when it loses its color. But now, when I went out there, I saw thriving coral, and the different colors, like purple and yellow coral.”

Those colors were well represented on the sands of Deerfield Beach, during the Sea the Reef graduation art show.

As the students set up their final project, members of the public mold clay into coral to contribute to the outdoor exhibit.

Finally, the teenagers reveal the culmination of their work, the Coral Playhouse.

Students took dead coral from the ocean made it into mold. They also created a manta ray sculpture out of some discarded ghost net they found on a beach clean up.

It was a hands on class in repurposing - taking marine debris from the ocean, like the plastic and all the fishing line, and putting it all together to create their final project.

The structure serves as a symbol of the educational bedrock that Sea the Reef has now instilled in these young minds.

Parents are amazed and said they’re noticing interests in their kids they’ve never seen before.

It’s that kind of impact that Simeone wishes the pilot program will continue to have for years to come.

“I’m hoping for this to be a staple in our South Florida community every spring, our teens from the title one, high schools, BIPOC teens, for them to have the opportunity to live out the message of ocean conservation,” she said. “I want them to see themselves as environmental artists, as leaders in their community, making a change. They can start from at home and bring it wider.”

Graduating students from the program will have the opportunity to come back and teach future members of Sea the Reef.

It’s important to note that the program is currently only being offered through the Deerfield Beach Teen Center.

Anyone interested in signing up a student, or in partnering with the organization, click here.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.