Nurturing the Next Generation of Sea Turtles...and Humans
By Mark Steinbuck, KEEN Grants and Community Specialist
In the southwestern Mexican state of Jalisco—hours away from the nearest notable name on the map—two KEEN Effect employees descend the Pacific Coast to dig deeper into one of our newest KEEN Effect grantees: The Careyes Foundation. Jalisco, it is locally touted, is where Mexico gets its Mexican culture: mariachi music, tequila, and sombreros. Outside of Jalisco’s norm is the small village of Costa Careyes, a curated Mediterranean-style enclave with yellow and pink plaster buildings supporting cerulean tile roofs. Driving for hours through Jalisco, you’d never expect this place to be here.
Chris and I, members of the KEEN Effect team dedicated to taking action in pursuit of our values, know Mexico like the backs our hands. Our Spanish is immaculado. Chris knows all the vocabulary necessary to navigate the surf breaks and taco stands of Baja California, and I recall a decent amount of basic Spanish phrases picked up over a decade ago. On the long, coastal drive south from Puerto Vallarta, through the patchy campesino ranches and tropical forests that stock your pantries with pineapples, tomatoes, and avocados, we impress each other with our best attempts: “The man has a bad dog”: El hombre tiene un perro malo; “I like tequila on the sea”: me gusta tequila sobre la mer!; an ambitious “Where the hell is the next gas station?”: Pardón señor, donde es la gasolina allá? Not polished, but it’ll do.
¿Pero, quien sabe?… maybe this idea to visit our first Mexican KEEN Effect grant partner will work, or maybe I just planned us into ruin. Before leaving, I notice the state department has a travel advisory against nearly all of Mexico, and Jalisco isn’t batting above average. Mexico has a bit of a bad rap stateside these days, but I am resolved to shake off the media craze surrounding the narcos and banditos. Not that these problems don’t exist, just that blind, naïve optimism is often what gets adventure to the finish line. We could worry, but as locals say, “ya pa’ qué?”
Rescuing thousands of baby sea turtles
We, now descended from El Norte, strike out in the afternoon from Costa Careyes toward the pristine Pacific coastline of Playa Teopa to meet with Careyes Foundation’s staff: Alejandro, Sarah, Nacho, Kate, Katie, and Noelle. Through our grant program, Careyes Foundation is working alongside 10 local villages surrounding the tiny, developed enclave of Costa Careyes to help build positive, resilient, communities through outdoor experiences and education. How could we not visit?
Positive community development doesn’t happen in a flash, and it usually doesn’t happen from outsiders bearing sandals.
But positive community development doesn’t happen in a flash, and it usually doesn’t happen from outsiders bearing sandals. The Careyes Foundation finds success by working through the willingness of its partner communities, and that’s why the whole staff, when not leading excursions, is in all 10 villages in the area every single week teaching school.
Filippo Brignone, local founder and president of Careyes Foundation, agrees this is the cornerstone of good development. “Every day we are in the villages,” says Filippo. “Every day we understand what is happening and what the needs are. We work with the government, search for funds, and provide the necessary resources. Sometimes it is an ecology program, sometimes it is recreation, sometimes a health clinic, and sometimes it is a psychologist for kids and parents to talk to.”
On the windy Playa Teopa, the hard work integrating into the community shows: Kate, Katie, Noelle and Sarah - all non-locals – openly embrace the mass of kids excited to hug them first, with smiling parents watching on. This is a program of friendships, not just development, and that’s why Careyes Foundation will make a difference. Sarah Lerman, the foundation’s director, elaborates: "With the KEEN Effect grant, we’ve been able to start one program, expand another, and secure transportation to bring children to the conservation center to learn about and help the sea turtle nesting, hatching, and releasing process. The kids have actively engaged in releasing these tiny little creatures that are basically dinosaurs!"
Most important, Careyes Foundation has Alejandro. Born and raised on the beaches of Costa Careyes, he has dedicated his life to stewarding the coastline and educating the local children on all of the amazingly beautiful biology around them, starting with this sea turtle rescue program over 35 years ago. When Alejandro started, there were practically no sea turtles seasonally returning to Playa Teopa, so he began hatching and releasing 10 turtles per season, eventually growing it to its height this year where he and the children will be releasing 2,300 turtles. Amazingly, over 1.5 million turtles have been hatched and released through Alejandro’s program.
Showing the value of the wildlife and the ecosystems here really helps kids to understand why they should take care of where they live. They are a part of more than just their homes and community, but a part of nature as a whole.
After struggling to put up our nylon tents in 35mph winds, and listening to Alejandro’s lesson on beach ecology, the kids from the pueblo of Emiliano Zapata ran to the nests, found some baby turtles struggling through the sand, and took them by hand to their destination at the edge of the waves. Before I dive in, Kate, Careyes’ ecology program coordinator, interjects some quick translations for me: "Tonight we are setting some turtles free. We want to teach about the local species of sea turtles that come to these beaches, so the kids can be aware of the value of the animals that come and be more cognizant of protecting them. Showing the value of the wildlife and the ecosystems here really helps kids to understand why they should take care of where they live. They are a part of more than just their homes and community, but a part of nature as a whole.
The feeling of a brand new, endangered reptile emerging from its leathery egg and then flop around within my hands is unlike anything else on Earth, and is the kind of transformative experience that makes people want to protect local beaches forever.
Settling down with the wind at night, the sand infused within the deepest nooks of skin, our camp builds a fire, roasts marshmallows, and spends the night telling jokes and campfire stories across the crackling logs. I understand almost none of the jokes, but the children’s laughs are infectious and add to the healing spirit of the day.
Pedaling through a Mexican pueblo
A 30-minute drive north of Playa Teopa, night gives way to dawn. The deep ocean blues of the Pacific coastal sky begin to gently glow above the dense, tropical fog trapped in the forested hills surrounding the rustic pueblo of Juan Gil Preciado. The fog settles on the rocky dirt tracks framing the village, on a blue nylon tarp securing the doorway of a crumbling store-front, and on the cobblestone ornamentation that encircles the village plaza, el jardín.
Later, the plaza will provide some shade and space for an informal micro-bazaar, and by midday the village will dry up, wrapped in the iconic dusty and hot Mexican day that keeps the tradition of siesta in business. But for now, the air is cool, humid, and welcoming—a perfect invitation to take a few dozen kids mountain biking to learn about the local ecology.
Nacho has been guiding bike trips alongside the rest of the Careyes entourage for the past year, holding two per month in a different village each time. A young man from Guadalajara (Jalisco’s capital city), Nacho knows the needs and challenges of Mexican youth. And being an accomplished cyclist who rides his bike down long stretches of rural Mexican highway with less concern than I give during my morning Portland commute, he knows first-hand the transformative power of outdoor recreation.
The goal, says Nacho, is not just to get the rural children to have fun, exercise, and recreate, but rather to use the experience to seed a culture of engagement throughout the village: natural sciences, creative expression, environmental stewardship, and English-language learning. "The coolest part about our program is that the kids become the environmental police in their own communities," Nacho says. "They are teaching their siblings, their parents, their grandparents why it’s important to keep it the way it is and not impact it more than necessary. They are the people influencing their own communities, and that is the best way to impact the local consciousness."
But why bike riding? Simple, Nacho tells me: the kids asked for it. Being a father of two young children myself, I know the futility of making kids do things they don’t want to do. Like blending kale into a fruit smoothie, it is best to give the kids what they want and pepper in your ulterior motives unnoticed.
Not more than a few minutes after we arrive in three trucks filled with bicycles, helmets and a few dozen KEEN kids’ Newport sandals, the youth of the village are already chasing the roosters with their bikes toward el jardin. The Newport sandals are key. We don’t market these as such, but these are the best sandals available for kids that don’t have brakes on their mountain bikes. (PSA: Don’t try this at home, but one skilled placement of the fat rubber toe bumper between the rear tire and the bike frame and a veritable death machine turns into a decently controllable bike. Even the youngest kids pick up on it quickly, and instantly realize that I shelter my children way too much.)
As the sun rises, a few shopkeepers stir, and the mothers, brothers, sisters, and fathers of today’s adventurers arrive in tow. The kids show excitement for what lies ahead: a long day on their bikes with their friends and their neighbors down a cart track pointed east that passes quickly out of the village, alongside the local cemetery, through a stone tunnel, and past a few miles of gardens, farms, pastures, and fallow lands that sustain Juan Gil.
The rocky trail that winds our motley crew of dozens of kids on bikes leads us to Alejandro on the edge of a swamp, set up and ready to direct the kids on a scavenger hunt for foraged biology lessons: seeds, slime, tropical fruits, feathers, bones, and other found biota.
Sarah notes that sometimes an abuela will make tacos or ceviche for everyone to share when the group arrives at a river or pond to make sure it is a really fun day for the whole family. Today we have quesadillas, and quesadillas don’t get any better than straight out of an abuela’s knapsack, filled with the cheese that probably came from the cow that lives on this very coastal Jalisco cow pasture where we sit. Fresh, creamy, salty… this is not just queso fresco, it is queso Careyes.
In the heat of midday, after organizing and learning about the scavenged objects, the kids grow tired and weary, ready for the ride home to their families and a siesta. In another week or two, it will be another local village’s turn.
We, the adventurous travelers of KEEN, find Mexico to be endlessly charming and hospitable, despite our failing-grade Spanish. The people, the food, the culture, the weather… the value! Making grants all across the world as we do, it’s striking to see how far a US dollar will go toward different programs in different geographies. In Mexico, our KEEN Effect grant helped to fund the entire year’s-worth of daily environmental and educational programming for ten pueblos serving hundreds of kids on the southern coast of Jalisco.
We are a little sad to be home, standing at our desks looking out at the cloudy, rain-filled skies of Portland, but exceedingly proud of our grant to the Careyes Foundation, as they continue their amazing work to create the next generation of global environmental stewards. Although we are home, they move forward: Filipo reminds us: “We are here every day and doing it. We have somebody on the beach 365 days a year watching and protecting it in good weather or bad – and it is the same with our villages.”
Our Careyes Foundation Experience in 2 Minutes
Since 2003, we’ve donated more than $17 million to nonprofit organizations and causes around the world through board service, shoe donations, and grants. Visit keenfootwear.com/grants for more about the KEEN Effect grant programs.