Meet Thomas Paterek, who leads the new Ocean Friendly Gardens program for the Suncoast Chapter in Florida. The chapter decided to start this program to educate their community on easy-to-implement solutions for combatting harmful algal blooms that have been devastating the state in recent years. In 2019, Thomas worked with a local nursery owner and his homeowners association to transform Crescent Heights in St. Petersburg into an Ocean Friendly neighborhood. Together, the partners transformed 39 small sidewalk plots of turf grass into beautiful, native habitats that thrive without synthetic fertilizers and help reduce stormwater runoff. Since then, more than 10 of the local residents turned their entire yards into OFGs! Read more about this OFG project here.
This coming year, Thomas plans to work with the city of St. Pete to install a new, larger-scale garden in a city park and to adopt an OFG rebate program for the city's stormwater utility bill. Read Thomas' spotlight below to learn more about his commitment and passion for defending clean water in his community.
Q: Why and when did you get involved with the Surfrider Foundation?
I got my first taste of the Surfrider Foundation back in 2006 when the local Suncoast Chapter was reborn due to a historic Gulf Coast surf break being threatened (yes, there can be surf here a few days out of the year). I wanted to get involved because of the enjoyment that the ocean provides to me, to be a voice for the voiceless.
Q: What are some local issues that affect water quality in your community?
Harmful algal blooms are a major issue in our local area and will continue to proliferate if we don’t create awareness and act now. There are lots of threats that affect water quality, especially due to the nature of our seasonality. During our rainy seasons (summer), torrential downpours sweep up our streets, which lead directly into our streams and bays. Along the way, single-use plastics, pesticides, pet waste and who knows what else crash the party and end up where we play.
Q: How is your Chapter/Club responding to those issues?
In 2019, the Suncoast Chapter led a four-year initiative on banning single-use plastics straws and to-go foam containers at local restaurants.
In 2020, we are pivoting our focus to Clean Water initiatives that directly impact harmful algal blooms. We are working hard on creating awareness, educating, acting and rewarding individuals and businesses through Ocean Friendly Gardens and Vertical Oyster Gardens programming. We are also looking at implementing policy changes into residential building standards to allow higher rates of water retention. Finally, we are continuing our grassroots approach via beach cleanups so that volunteers can be a part of the change during each event.
Q: What has been the highlight of your Surfrider experience (i.e., campaign, program, victory)?
At the end of 2019, the Suncoast Surfrider Chapter partnered with the local Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association and Wilcox Nursery in procuring a $20k grant to plant 39 Ocean Friendly Gardens in the neighborhood. Throughout this process, we were able to educate hundreds about the harmful algal bloom issue, provided “How To” workshops for Florida native plants and completed the project with a celebration that the Mayor of St Petersburg and Council Members attended. It was an amazing experience connecting Surfrider with residents, government and small businesses to transform a community benefitting of our waterways.
Q: Why is being involved in the Surfrider Foundation important to you?
Because Surfrider provides the resources, education, and energy to be a part of the change needed in the world right now. I couldn’t think of an organization that I’m more proud to represent than these grassroots efforts that impact our oceans so effectively.
Q: How can we all pitch in to help protect clean water and healthy beaches?
Grab a notebook and create an awareness journal of how your daily activities affect your local waterways. Record all of the single-use plastics that you interact with each day. Observe the number of pesticide signs that are placed and sprayed on lawns near you. Observe the amount of pet poo that surrounds our parks.
Once awareness of these issues is created, go to www.surfrider.org
to discover how these issues are being tackled, and then plug into your local chapter on campaigns that matter most to YOU.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Knowledge is power. If you aren’t sure about how to get involved, try a Surfrider Core Training session or Online course. Once your confidence is boosted because of the education, the impact you will have on those around you will be transformational.