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Pelican Island Audubon Society hires executive director

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of July 28, 2022)
Photo: Donna Halleran and Dr. Richard Baker.

Indian River County’s oldest and most active environmental organization has hired its first executive director with the aim of expanding its programs and increasing its public profile after nearly 60 years of volunteer leadership.

“Up till now, we have been so busy starting and running programs that we haven’t done as good a job as we should have of telling our story,” said Donna Halleran, a Coast Guard veteran and retired social worker who started as executive director of Pelican Island Audubon Society this month.

It is quite a story.

Early members of the group that formed Pelican Island Audubon Society led the fight to stop condo development near Pelican Island Wildlife Sanctuary back in the early 1960s. The chapter was organized in 1964 in the aftermath of that effort and since then has been at the forefront of most every important environmental battle or initiative in Indian River County.

Audubon members founded Vero’s acclaimed Environmental Learning Center in the 1980s and helped lead the effort to pass two bond issues – one for $50 million in 2004 and a second one for $25 million – to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive land.

Audubon and its longtime president Dr. Richard Baker, a retired University of Florida biology professor, also led the fight to stop expansion of the Oslo Road boat ramp that would have imperiled one of the most pristine sections of the lagoon in Indian River County.

They were also instrumental in the effort to get city and county fertilizer ordinances passed 10 years ago to keep nitrogen and other harmful chemicals out of the lagoon.

Today the group runs a wide range of programs, including a summer camp and after school programs that teach children about science and the environment, while building their artistic and communication skills and bolstering their mental health.

For years, the 800-member Audubon chapter has conducted bird counts and nesting surveys at Blue Cypress Lake, the largest Osprey breeding site in the world, keeping track of an environmental treasure in Vero’s back yard.

In 2018, Baker and his volunteers launched Trees for Life, an ambitious effort to plant 100,000 native trees in the county, with 12,000 planted so far.

Volunteers also clear trails on preserve land, lead nature hikes and teach adults about birding.

“I’ve been president of Pelican Island Audubon Society since 2003 and it has been a fulltime job since we opened Audubon house in 2015,” said Baker, who is looking forward to a lighter workload and some time off with Halleran coming in as top administrator.

“We did a nationwide search and there were more than 20 applicants,” Baker said, but in the end the search committee picked one of Audubon’s own.

A board member since 2014, Halleran has been heavily involved as a volunteer leader and program manager, putting in 50 hours a week, and the committee decided she was best positioned to keep Audubon’s many programs operating effectively while also taking the organization to the next level.

Her goals include expanding the Audubon House – which is located on the shell road that leads to the Oslo Road Boat Ramp – to create more space for educational programs, community events and a bird art museum; growing the afterschool program that teaches fifth-graders everything from first aid to kayaking to scientific research skills; creating a 10-year strategic plan to guide the growth of the organization; and amping up fundraising. 

The group, which is funded by grants and donations, is heavily networked in the community, doing joint programs with the school district, the county, Vero Beach, Sebastian and other entities, but it has never done the kind of outreach and targeted fundraising many other nonprofits employ to engage island donors and other potential benefactors.

“Audubon is the main environmental organization in the county that does advocacy for environmental causes and I am excited about the future of the organization,” Halleran told Vero Beach 32963. “There is a great need in the world we live in now for environmental education and action, and I want to see more action!”

“Our dynamic board is very active in encouraging a variety of initiatives and keenly watches out for what is happening in our county and its environmental needs,” Baker said. “We have been expanding our programs and Donna’s leadership and organizing skills are [much] needed.”

“I am looking forward to telling our story in a more compelling way to attract new members and funding, so that we can do more to protect the environment and educate the next generation,” Halleran said.