Mangroves. Seagrass. Sponges. Coral. And don’t even get us started on the fish, turtles, dolphins, lobster and other underwater animals. 

They’re all vital marine resources and they’re all right offshore in our shared backyard. But they’re not always accessible. In fact, a surprising number of Florida Keys kids have never spent a day snorkeling in shallow water, swimming at a sandbar or exploring an offshore island. While plenty of us grab a bucket of chicken and our pre-packed “boat bag” of sunscreen and snorkel gear, we tend to take for granted our access to and experiences on the water.

The mangroves that rim the Florida Keys are a vital marine ecosystem. CONTRIBUTED

This year’s class of Leadership Monroe County, Class XXIX, of which I happen to be a proud member, wants to change that and ensure all middle-schoolers in the Florida Keys experience their saltwater surroundings at least once, while learning why their protection is essential.

Class XXIX, a collection of 15 professionals from the Lower, Middle and Upper Keys, named ourselves Delta Force due to our formation during the pandemic’s delta variant surge and our commitment to creating positive change in our community. 

Leadership Monroe County aims to develop strong, dedicated, local leaders working for a sense of community throughout Monroe County. The nine-month program introduces participants to all facets of the Florida Keys’ government, environment, law enforcement, health care, education, media and other topics. The program also requires each class to complete a project that benefits the entire island chain. 

Our class spent a November day on the water with MarineLab in Key Largo, then visited the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s drinking water plant in Florida City before heading to the Everglades for two nights. 

While on the boat at MarineLab, getting an up-close look at all sorts of plants and animals, we realized how many Keys kids never get the chance to leave the shore and experience what’s beyond the beach.

MarineLab in the Upper Keys offers hands-on marine education to kids of all ages. CONTRIBUTED

We wanted to show all kids what’s in and under the water, with the hope of inspiring the next generation of environmental protectors. So we came up with “Saltwater Superheroes: Because all kids are seaworthy.”

Delta Force has partnered with MarineLab to provide an educational boat trip, for all Keys middle-schoolers. 

We’re raising money to ensure that every Keys kid sees and experiences our shared backyard from the deck of a boat. It’s a world they have to see to believe. And they won’t protect what they don’t understand. MarineLab also provides a matching grant program that doubles each dollar we raise.

Every dollar is greatly appreciated and will be put to good use. We’ve also created sponsorship levels that start with a First Mate sponsorship of $50 for one child. A Crew-level donation of $250 funds five kids, or half a boat. A Ship-level sponsorship of $500 fills a large boat with 14 to 18 kids and Fleet-level sponsorship of $1,000 sends three boats to sea with 27 Keys kids.

By becoming a Saltwater Superhero, you and your business will help Delta Force (Class XXIX) of Leadership Monroe County inspire the next generation to protect a place we can’t replace. 

Delta Force thanks our first Fleet-level sponsor, First State Bank and Ship-level sponsors Green Pineapple Wellness in Key West and Summerland Ocean Life

For information and donations, visit saltwatersuperheroes.com and remember, all kids are seaworthy.

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.