a couple of people that are in the water
I.CARE’s Kylie Smith and Riley Garvey take notes on restoration efforts. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

At the end of March, Mike Goldberg, co-founder of I.CARE and owner of Key Dives, got a call “out of the blue” from someone who’d seen him on CNN’s Hero of the Year Finale Show at the end of 2023. While I.CARE didn’t win the big prize, the platform did get them in front of some very important eyes.

“(The caller) is a marine science teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, and his wife represents a woman who oversees a foundation. His wife saw me on CNN, and the foundation wanted to get behind us,” he said.

The mystery caller asked Goldberg to come up with three projects he wants funded. “I didn’t think it was a real call; I thought it was a prank call,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg and Kylie Smith, his I.CARE co-founder, responded with tiers of funding that “shoot a little over” the $100,000 ballpark figure they were given to brainstorm around. Smith added, “We were dreaming big and dreaming little about ways we can make an impact in this community. So, we requested funding for three discrete projects, thinking we could start at least two of them with $100,000.”

The foundation wanted to ensure that funded projects would have longevity beyond the initial phase. Smith shared game plans, the history of the projects and the reasoning behind each. Goldberg assured them, “We’re ready. We know exactly what to do, we just need the money to do it.” 

“She’s in,” they were told.

Their benefactress turned out to be philanthropist Delores Barr Weaver, former co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Along with her husband J. Wayne, Weaver has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Florida and its communities since they moved to the Sunshine State in 1993, benefiting everything from the arts and schools to the homeless and zoos. Now, through the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund at the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, Weaver will donate $650,000 to I.CARE over three years to fund all three I.CARE projects for double the amount of time requested. 

a woman sitting at a table with a plate of food
Delores Barr Weaver is a philanthropist and the former co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. THE COMMUNITY FOUNDATION FOR NORTHEAST FLORIDA/Contributed

Smith said, “I was in tears. We got off the phone and, of course, Mike’s brain was going, ‘We gotta do this, and we gotta do this, and this,’ and I said, ‘Stop. Stop. Take 30 seconds and soak this in, because I can’t stop crying.’”

The donation will support two years of sponge restoration research and transplanting. Bobbi Renfro, known as “Sponge Bobbi” for her sponge restoration work, will lead ground-breaking research for ecosystem-wide restoration of sponges. Funding will locate healthy sponge populations in the Keys, create in-situ nurseries for sponges and transplant healthy sponge species onto the reef in degraded areas. This work has been field-tested for the last two years with I.CARE and Mote Marine Laboratory; now, Renfro will be the first in the world to attempt large-scale sponge restoration on the reef. 

Funds will also go toward a year’s worth of coral propagation through corals of opportunity. Corals of opportunity are corals that have broken off the reef naturally, through wave action, storms, etc. I.CARE will collect these and use them as broodstock to create more corals for restoration. This will boost biodiversity, by bringing corals to different areas of the Keys, and resilience, because these corals are proven survivors. “With everything our reefs are facing right now, these corals are able to survive. So, bringing these in and distributing them into new places, it brings the science to a whole new level,” Smith said. Field-testing this during the 2023 summer heat wave by transplanting corals of opportunity, Goldberg cited a 70% survivorship for these “corals that are tough mothers.”

Dollars donated by Weaver will building a “blue economy” curriculum and outreach program for local schools. I.CARE wants to train, certify and educate school kids. “Let’s get them real hands-on, underwater, doing the work. We believe that’s the best way to ignite someone to become a marine scientist,” Goldberg said. After working with local students in Marathon, Smith realized many don’t know how to dive and don’t have opportunities to learn how. This project fills that void, Smith said. “To me, that was a no-brainer project to include.”

“I was impressed by the mission of I.CARE and inspired by their efforts to find more effective ways to restore coral reefs,” Weaver told the Weekly. “Their efforts to get recreational divers and high school and college students involved and committed as volunteers are commendable and important to the future of our reef ecosystem.”