OA’s Aquatic Tourism Program won the prestigious Beyond Sports 2014 Award in the category Sport for Education (sponsored by UNICEF). The Beyond Sport Awards celebrate and reward the best projects from around the world that use sport to bring about positive social change. Ocean Academy’s project was selected from 350 entries spanning 70 countries. School founders Joni Miller and Heidi Curry were invited to Johannesburg, South Africa October 28-30, 2014 for the Awards ceremony and they represented Belize on an international panel addressing the theme of how sports can inspire youth to become leaders in their communities.
In addition to traditional high-school subjects, all Ocean Academy students select an elective and P.E. (physical education) class each semester. Students who select Aquatic Tourism are mentored by skilled tour guides and earn valuable certifications in kayaking, scuba diving, fly fishing or windsurfing, all at no cost thanks for strong partnerships with local tour operators. Workshops in entrepreneurship, marine biology, first aid, tour guiding, communication and leadership skills complement the P.E. program.
Sandie Betz-Eisenberg says that “as soon as my son Spenser saw the video of the Aquatic Tourism classes he exclaimed, ‘That’s where I want to go to school!’ His marine biology and especially fly fishing classes have given him the opportunity to pursue his passion for the sea and to get credit for it at the same time. Ocean Academy has been instrumental in connecting Spenser with people who can help him to follow and live his dreams. I believe that we couldn’t ask for more than that, as that is what every parent wishes for their children”.
Ocean Academy’s “With Purpose Tours” adds an entrepreneurial element to the Aquatic Tourism Program. Trained students accompany visitors by kayak, bike or fishing rod around Caye Caulker and interpret the marine and terrestrial ecosystems and sites from the perspective of the island youth. Visitors fill out evaluation forms after each trip that assist administrators in designing follow-up training sessions for student leaders, and trip donations are credited to the student’s school fees, family income, and school scholarship fund. The Aquatic Tourism Program highlights the positive impact that location-based learning can have on a student’s future employment possibilities and the likelihood to remain in school once he/she is engaged in real-world interactions and learning.
Parent Johnny Cantun Sr. recalls that “since Johnny Jr. was a little boy he has loved fishing. That’s one of the reasons I put him here at this high school. Ocean Academy has classes in fly fishing, scuba, kayak, marine biology. It’s what the island needs. Johnny loves fishing but now he also wants to be an architect and he enjoys learning how to make mobile apps in computer class. Ocean Academy is the best school for me to send my son so that he learns skills that will benefit himself, his future, and also the island”.
Since 2009, 36 students have certified as PADI Open Water scuba divers, 19 are advanced divers, and two alumni are Dive Masters. Six students and one administrator enrolled in a month-long night class for tour guides and community members, in 2012, to learn how to set transects and conduct surveys of invertebrates, juvenile fish, corals, commercial fish and marine mammals. They graduated as Community Reef Technicians. The Department of Youth Services awarded Ocean Academy student Kyle Requena the 2013 National Youth in Tourism Award. After graduation Kyle worked alongside his mentor to compete in an international fly-fishing tournament and he is now an assistant fly-fishing instructor with Ocean Academy.
“Ocean Academy has created many opportunities for students to get involved in the tourism industry here on Caye Caulker, from conducting beach cleanups to sharing local knowledge of island ecosystems with visitors,” says Joni Miller, school Founder and Projects Director. “These mentorships and entrepreneurial opportunities not only attract non-traditional students to enroll in high school, but also help our students improve their overall set of professional skills that are transferable to any career or educational path they may follow”.
Aquatic Sport opportunities for Ocean Academy students are possible thanks to partnerships with Caye Caulker tour operators who freely volunteer their time, expertise and resources to mentor local youth. Ocean Academy extends a heart-felt thank you to Toucan Canoe and Kayaks (kayaking), Belize Diving Services (scuba diving), Anglers Abroad (fly-fishing), Dane Dingerson (windsurfing), and the Forest and Marine Reserves Association of Caye Caulker (reef and mangrove ecology). Beyond Sport and UNICEF join a growing list of international sponsors of Ocean Academy’s Aquatic Tourism program: the Embassy of the United States, Belmopan (CARSI grant for alternative livelihoods and training for youth), Kenco Outdoor Equipment Store in New York State and Jackson Kayak in Tennessee.
Nick Keller, Founder of Beyond Sport concluded the Summit and Awards with the message that “all our winners represent the very best in leadership both in society and their own communities. Amongst all the remarkable work, the winners have demonstrated innovation and impact at an exceptional level and are an inspiration to all; we hope winning today further strengthens the incredible work they have already achieved”.