By Michael Bednar, CEO of Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, Inc
Charlotte County Schools are unique, as most school districts don’t have coastal regions and even have estuaries. Add in the manatees, alligators, bald eagles, and gopher tortoises and suddenly you’ve got an environment that most would envy. For over 20 years the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center (CHEC) has been responsible for taking Charlotte County students, including Vineland and Myakka River Elementary Schools, and putting them smack-dab in the middle of all that “real Florida” goodness. This year was a return to form for CHEC, as the children were able to enjoy in-person field trips after a year of quarantines and social distancing. Second graders were once again waist deep in the waters of Lemon Bay in Englewood and Ponce DeLeon in Punta Gorda. For most of these students, it’s the first time they’ve used a net and collected animals. There’s something that happens when you see them check that net and discover some wriggly marine animal. It’s like a light going on and the smile is apparent. For one moment, they are unplugged from TV, phones, and internet and there’s only their pruned fingers cupping the net and something natural looking back at them. Fourth graders captain the Kingfisher Eco tours and learn about all the animals that live above and below the Peace River, from alligators and dolphins to roseate spoonbills and wood storks. They perform water tests and discover how and why the water supports all the different species that call the estuary home. The trips are coupled with guided hikes and trail cam footage, to show how land ecosystems connect and impact coastal and freshwater habitats. Plus, there’s camera footage of bobcats, coyotes, feral pigs, and even families of cute raccoons. CHEC continues to help the students of Charlotte County learn to value the natural world around them. You can’t care about something you don’t understand, and you can’t understand something you don’t know. Thanks to Southwest Florida Water Management, the Charlotte County Marine Advisory committee, Mosaic, and all the students and teachers of Charlotte County, CHEC works hard to help them know how unique this area really is.