Laura Blake – Alumni Honoree 2014 Gala Speech
My journey with Christodora began twenty five years ago. I was born and raised in New York City, with limited exposure to nature. My 6th grade teacher recommended me for the summer program at the Manice Education Center, an action that proved to be life-altering for me. I had always been labeled the shy and quiet kid. Circumstances in my childhood had caused me to close myself off from the world. And an ultra-urban environment is the perfect setting for a closed off adolescent to get lost in the fray. That all changed when Manice became a part of my life, a key part of my life. From ages 12 and through 21, for ten years, I spent each of my summers at Manice. I was a student for four summer and a staff member for five summers.
I can attribute much of my success in my career to my time spent at Manice. Manice inspired my passion and appreciation for the natural environment and the ecological sciences. IThe lessons taught at Manice, like wetlands ecology, sparked my curiosity in the natural world. Listening to Manice staff talk about their academic and professional interests, much of which was in the natural sciences, inspired me. I went on to earn degrees in Environmental Studies, Geology, and Water Resources. Immediately following graduate school, I began my career in the field of Water Quality Management.
Manice also played a critical role in my growth as a leader. Manice provided a safe and supportive environment that allowed me to discover and nurture qualities that I did not know I had. Manice instilled confidence in me and helped me to find my voice. I often think about how much I learned from experiences like “Leader of the Day,” where two students are assigned complete responsibility for co-leading the group for the day, sun up to sun down. Those experiences taught valuable lessons in team work, problem solving, and overcoming challenges. Each evening, we would then, as a group, debrief the experience during a campfire, discussing highlights and lowlights. Where in the NYC public school system do you see opportunities for life experiences like this? All of this leadership training left a lasting impact on me. Today, I am the director of a successful business practice. I lead a team of scientists and work hand-in-hand with government agency personnel to develop plans to protect and restore our nation’s watersheds and water bodies.
As a scientist, I am always interested in cause and effect. And while we never know with certainty how our past experiences impact affect our present self, there really is no question in my mind that my success in my career and my success in life in general are directly attributed to the time I spent at Manice. I love NYC, but it can be isolating. When you spend your entire childhood in NYC, you don’t realize how much more is out there. And if your life circumstances are less than ideal, you begin to feel trapped. Christodora provides kids with an opportunity to escape from feelings of being trapped.
I hope everyone in this room has had the opportunity to spend time in the woods. Assuming that is the case, you will understand what I mean when I say there is something special, if not magical, about spending time in the woods. Encountering wildlife, climbing mountains, canoeing down rivers, camping in the rain, all of this can be life changing. Every kid deserves a chance to experience this magic.
This past summer, I took my four year old twins with me to visit Manice. It was my first time back in 15 years. It was quite a moving experience, especially being able to share Manice with my own children. I was blown away by all of the great changes made to the property and to the programs. However, what stood out most for me were the two things had not changed – the welcoming and dedicated staff, and the amazing students. It was heartening to see that Christodora still makes effective use of the wilderness in creating experiences that transform the lives of children. Let’s work to find ways to give all city kids the opportunity to experience this.