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Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times

After a tumultuous 2020 for Ocean Institute—a year that saw hurdles posed from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the loss of its longtime iconic vessel, the Pilgrim—the Dana Point nonprofit organization is celebrating at least one victory in 2021: a $50,0000 check donated by the Rainbow Sandals Foundation.

The Pilgrim, a tall ship and Dana Point staple, sank in her slip on Sunday, March 29. The once three-masted schooner was a full-sized 1945 replica of the merchant ship that Richard Henry Dana had detailed in his classic novel, Two Years Before the Mast. The regional icon was a sought-after field trip destination for students for several decades.

The Ocean Institute is an educational organization that has long offered immersive field trip experiences to students and science-based programs for both classes and the public. But with a stay-at-home order and virtual learning replacing classroom learning, many of the institute’s operations were halted. The cancellation of the institute’s Jazz Festival and the restructuring of the Maritime Festival had put Ocean Institute in a challenging financial predicament.

On Jan. 1, 2020, Ocean Institute had 129 employees. A year later, there are now 47 employees.

“This team has worked incredibly hard throughout 2020 to continue to deliver on our mission, even in our darkest hours,” said Wendy Marshall, Ocean Institute’s CEO and President. “This donation clearly helps our organization, but for me, personally, it is wonderful for the staff to see that their hard work has been recognized by the community.”

Marshall says the institute had to lay off 100 team members early in the pandemic.

“We brought all team members who wanted to return back with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and have retained all who have wanted to continue their employment,” Marshall said. “They are troopers marching through an unknown, and we have uncovered talent, creativity, and persistence that we could never have imagined.”

On Thursday, Jan. 7, Ocean Institute announced the nonprofit would be receiving a $50,000 donation from Rainbow Sandals Foundation—less than a week after Rainbow Sandals had donated $50,000 to San Clemente’s historical Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens.

“I decided it was Rainbow Sandals’ responsibility to help these wonderful organizations like Casa Romantica and others in our community the best we can,” said Jay “Sparky” Longley, founder of Rainbow Sandals.

(From left) Herman Brown Jr., Rainbow Sandals Foundation; Dr. Wendy Marshall, President and CEO, Ocean Institute; and Jay Longley, founder of Rainbow Sandals hold up a $50,000 check made out to Ocean Institute. Photo: Courtesy of Ocean Institute

Marshall says the donation will go toward providing the Ocean Institute’s experiences to those who are unable to afford them.

“Ocean Institute has been quick and creative in providing enrichment experiences to our community, with a particular emphasis on those who are in the greatest need,” Marshall said. “We launched virtual field trips this fall and will use the funding to cover the costs of bringing the program to schools, hospitals, shelters, and other groups who are unable to pay.”

Marshall is hopeful that OI will return to some normalcy in the new year and eventually welcome back schools and public visitors for traditional programs, while building on the online presence that was cultivated during 2020.

“We are also very excited to host our first college fair,” Marshall said. “The Virtual Marine and Environmental Sciences College Fair is on March 27 and will feature presentations from universities and programs from across the country. This free event aims to answer the question ‘What next?’ for high school and community college students.”

A full day of online presentations, panels, and speakers aims to highlights options and opportunities for students. OI will also be building its first Career Day in May, which will follow a similar format.

Vipe Desai, who serves as chairman for OI’s board of directors, says he is grateful to staff, residents, volunteers and donors alike for helping navigate a challenging year.

“While we’re ready to charge into 2021, we are even more excited for 2022—which will mark our 45th Anniversary—and where we will be creating programs and experiences that everyone in Orange County can be part of and really help us celebrate our achievements in a way that our Dana Point Ohana will be proud of,” Desai said.—LB

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