The vacancy left at Town Hall by the departure of long-time Environmental Science Coordinator Keith Laakkonen has been filled by the young, energetic persona of Rae Blake, a woman perfectly suited to the top environmental job on our beach because – not only did she grow up on a beach – she has been involved in sea turtle conservation since she was a little girl.
Blake – whose official title is Environmental/Storm Water Technician – comes to us from Lee County, where she was employed as an environmental technician. Born in Juno Beach on the east coast of Florida, she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2011 and her Master’s in Biology from Clemson University’s online program while working to gain experience in her field.
“I was born and raised in the city of Juno Beach, in a house that was literally steps from the beach,” Rae told us. “I became interested in island ecology at a very young age because I was surrounded by the beach.”
Juno Beach is a little town of some 3,400 souls nestled in the northern part of Palm Beach County. It is known for many things, but perhaps best known for Loggerhead sea turtles – so many turtles nest here each year that a loggerhead is the city’s mascot and the town is home to the renowned Loggerhead Marinelife Center. All of this would have a profound impact on the young Rae Blake.
“My first experience with sea turtles happened when I was five years old,” she said. “My dad took me out to the beach one night and I saw a turtle lay her eggs. I was so completely enthralled that (laughs) I had my next three birthday parties at the Marinelife Center. I have literally been surrounded by sea turtles and nesting birds my whole life.”
From that point on, Rae knew what her direction in life would be, and she brings that intoxicating enthusiasm to her new gig at Town Hall, where she’s only been employed for two weeks but already has big plans for environmental outreach.
“I’m really excited about working with the community to teach people about our natural resources,” Rae told us on Tuesday. “The first thing I want to do is write a weekly article for the local papers that spotlights an animal, plant or ecosystem that is native to Fort Myers Beach. Then, when spring break rolls around, I’d like to do something to get the kids interested in respecting the beach so they don’t make such a mess.”
Right now, however, Rae is busy settling into her new role and learning about the various environmental issues and codes associated with our town.
“I knew when I first saw the posting that I’d learn a lot from this job, and I am,” she said. “Right now I’m working on learning all the enforcement codes, building codes, environmental codes.”
In her spare time – not that she has much these days – Rae likes to spend time hiking with her fiancé, an accountant she met while attending FGCU, and snorkeling with her dad.
“I love being outdoors, and Dad and I have always bonded by snorkeling together – we want to learn how to scuba dive too,” she said. “Juno Beach is only 2 ½ hours away so my folks aren’t far.”
Public Works Director Scott Baker is Blake’s immediate boss at Town Hall, and he told us a couple of weeks ago that she brings ‘a breath of fresh air’ to the town.
“I especially like how she wants to engage and educate the community,” he said. “I fully support her efforts in getting residents involved in conservation.”
Rae will also be serving as liaison to the Marine Resources Task Force, and has her first meeting with that advisory committee next Tuesday at 10am.
“I’m looking forward to working with that group on environmental education, too,” she said. “In 1996, the National Research Council stressed the importance of education in addressing environmental problems, they recommended administrative and curriculum reforms that focus on educating responsible citizens and future policymakers about stewardship of aquatic resources. This concept is still relevant – and that’s why I want to co-author the articles as it would provide an easy vehicle to introduce locals to their ecosystem in a uniquely personal way as they learn about different species they can find and observe on their own.”
“Education is most effective when paired to discovery,” Rae concluded. “This appreciation is vital to beach health and survival, and I look forward to exposing more of the public to it.”
Keri Hendry Weeg