Earthwatch Volunteer Making Waves in Georgia
Sarah Weldon has fond memories of volunteering on the Earthwatch project Spanish Dolphins in 2002, but she had no idea how the ripple effect of that experience would impact her life eight years on...
Her adventures on the high seas inspired Sarah to establish Oceans Project Georgia, a pioneering marine education program for young people in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The project is the culmination of an eclectic career path spanning neuropsychology, outdoor education, and teaching.
Sarah first moved to Georgia in 2010 as part of the Ministry of Education’s educational reform program. “Before I saw the ministry’s advert, I had never even heard of Georgia,” she says. “I had no idea that I would be so inspired by the children I met, that I would end up moving permanently to Georgia and setting up the Oceans Project.”
Initially, Sarah’s friends warned her against going. Georgia received a lot of negative media attention during the country’s 2008 armed conflict with Russia.
“But what I found was far from a country at war,” says Sarah. “I probably feel safer in Georgia than any other country I have ever visited.”
And, she adds, the warmth of the children that she is working with is priceless. “The kids here lack so much materially and have lived through such hard times,” she says. The first school Sarah worked in lacked electricity and books. “But I’m constantly impressed by their enthusiasm and desire to learn and meet foreigners,” she adds.
“Until recently many students did not have access to the media or online resources that young people in more wealthy countries have,” Sarah said. “I feel incredibly lucky to teach here, and I now work in the most amazing school, right in the heart of Tbilisi.”
Sarah works at the British Connection International School, where Manana Tevzadze, one of the school’s founders and now co-director of the Oceans Project, has provided invaluable support to help make Sarah’s vision a reality.
On top of her full-time teaching job, Sarah somehow found time to launch the Oceans Project, a 31-week environmental science and practical English course, aimed at young Georgian people from eight to 25 years old. The course, which they attend outside of their normal school hours, was inspired by and is built around the BBC Oceans series, with episodes of the program providing source material for the course.
(Left) Getting stuck into a river clean-up and (Right) teenagers hone skills learned through the Oceans Project
The pilot phase of the Oceans Project has been a resounding success. The participants include nearly 80 students from six schools, two universities, one orphanage, and one refugee camp. They are unified by a common language - English - as the course brings together speakers of Ukrainian, Russian, Danish, Czech, and Georgian. In addition to learning about oceans and applying that knowledge to conservation needs within Georgia, which is bordered on its west coast by the Black Sea, the project participants mix with students from different social and cultural backgrounds and from both public and private institutions.
“These youngsters respond really well to sharing their knowledge and experiences with peers,” says Sarah. “They are breaking social barriers and forming strong friendships.”
Sarah has established links through the program with the Duke of Edinburgh International Award Scheme, and participants can undertake training in snorkel diving, photography, and film-making.
“We would like to be able to attract enough funding to allow some of the participants to take part in an Earthwatch Expedition as the culmination of their training, and encourage young people to consider careers in science and education,” says Sarah.
The Oceans Project also benefits from the support of BBC Oceans presenter and Earthwatch ambassador Paul Rose and his series co-presenter, oceanographer and marine biologist Tooni Mahto, as well as other cast and crew of the series. “Tooni and Paul have been hugely supportive of the program from the outset,” says Sarah. “We hope to be able to get them out to Georgia soon to meet the kids.”
Sarah has an ambitious vision for the future of the Oceans Project, and she hopes to scale it up to make the training widely available nationally and even internationally. She has established strong links with the Georgian Ministry of Education, which has responded enthusiastically to her ideas, and she has had interest in the project from as far afield as Pakistan.
Sarah feels that the Oceans Project has a huge potential to make a positive impact on both education and conservation. “I have seen firsthand how the children that we have worked with through the Oceans Project have gone on to educate their own friends and families, and positively influence the behaviors of people across several generations. That is really heartening,” she recounts.
One aim of the Oceans Project is to connect its participants with people of the same age from other Black Sea Basin countries. “That way, we can help people realize that the Black Sea connects to the Mediterranean Sea, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean, and ultimately to all of the oceans in the world. So if we put a plastic bag in a river here in Georgia, it could affect a child in the Caribbean,” Sarah explains.
Who would have thought that that little spark of Earthwatch magic that she felt several years ago would inspire a project with the potential to change lives?
For more information about Oceans Project Georgia, visit oceansproject.com.