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Chief Mermaid's letter for the Merkids

Dear Merkids,

Almost a month ago, we finished our 10th SEA Camp. TENTH! When I sat across a panel of six in June 2014 to pitch the SEA Camp, my heart was pounding, unaware of what was to come. I didn't have all the answers, but I had a goal: to implement four camps and train 90 youth leaders to be leaders in marine conservation. The U.S. Embassy took a big leap of faith in me and that goal.

During the SEA Camps, all of you are required to write letters to leaders and reflection sheets. I first wrote this in 2015, but I thought it would be appropriate to update it after running six more camps. Today, I share my SEA Camp reflections to you, the leaders of today and tomorrow.

Many of you have described the SEA Camp as “life-changing.” For some, it was where they snorkeled for the first time. For others, it was an opportunity to meet and listen to speakers they had always admired. For most, it was a place where they “found their purpose” and became part of a now regional family.

It’s safe to say that it was also life-changing for us behind the scenes. Leading the SEA Camp has stretched my patience, determination, and love for the sea in ways I didn't know was possible. The SEA Camp is -- and will always be -- much more than a project and job. It was a dream that began in 2008, when I participated in my first regional leadership program and thought, "One day, I want to bring something like this to the Philippines." The SEA Camp has served as my north star through every personal and professional hurdle: my grandfather's death, my post-MSc existential crisis, when I came so close to burning out and shutting down SPS, a loved one's terminal illness, the end of a long-term relationship, and failed friendships. Having to work on the SEA Camp anchored me back to my passion and purpose when other aspects of my life were drowning.

Now, there are 242 alumni. Each SEA Camp and SEA Camper is different, but what remained constant (I hope) is that I was hard on you, and as you very well know, I’m not going to apologize for it. I didn’t initiate the SEA Camp to be a replacement parent or to be well-liked, but to show you that the pursuit of an advocacy requires hard work and a resilient spirit.

There are a few lessons I hope you take away from the experience. First is to (1) make a conscious effort to be on time, especially for professional commitments. For meetings, for deadlines, for anything. Punctuality is what all these so-called first-world cultures have in common. This social construct of “Filipino time” illustrates our acceptance for mediocrity.

(2) There’s no perfect environmentalist. #thestruggleisreal Conservation is a value-laden spectrum. I’m sure you’ve learned by now how challenging it can be, especially when it feels like we’re saying no to so many things—no straws, no single-use plastic bags, no plastic cups. I like to reframe it as saying yes to a sustainable world instead, so it’s more positive. We have to draw the line between what we can and can’t do, and we extend the line as we are faced with more questions and situations. (I still can't give up meat. The call of ChickenJoy is just too strong.)

On the same thread, (3) choose your battles. This is a hard lesson to learn, especially when you're passionate about so many issues. But you can't solve everything, and you can't save every species. Choose your battle(s) wisely, and go all out.

You know that quote about choosing a job you love so you never have to work a day in your life? That’s a lie. Because (4) there’s no substitute for hard work, honor, and excellence. Connections and diplomas can open doors for you, but hard work and never settling for “okay/pwede na” is what sets an individual and leader apart. Put in the hours at what you want to be good at, and seek ways to grow and improve. The problems of the world are too big to be petty and half-baked.

Lastly, (5) never underestimate the capacity of one person to make a positive difference. This is something I need to remind myself too, especially when, say, a government official rejects a policy proposal, or a critically endangered species gets killed once it’s released in the wild. But if one person can inflict damage, another person can make a bigger and more positive impact. This leads me to the positive differences you’ve made in your communities and to each other, from the projects inspired by the SEA Camp and the daily choices you make. I’m always inspired and in awe by the projects you’ve pursued, friendships you’ve built, lessons you’ve shared, and efforts you’ve done to help fellow SEA Campers.

I have learned so much from all of you, from the Nae Nae dance to the fact that Spongebob lives in a place called Bikini Bottom. Working with 242 participants not only meant having 242 different travel routes to arrange, but also 242 sets of dreams to nurture, and 242 insecurities, frustrations, and concerns to dissect and address.

Many of you have asked what the future of the SEA Camp will be. What if funding isn't given next year? What if a corporation wants to fund it instead? How do we tap the potential of the alumni community we've built together? Can we replicate the SEA Camp in other countries? What's next?

These questions are yours as much as they are mine. Lately, they've been occupying a lot of my mental and emotional space. But on the last day of the SEA Camp in Bohol, the answer emerged in one simple but powerful word: you.

YOU are the future of the SEA Camp. You, with your dreams and determination, your grit and grief, your humor and humility, are the future of the SEA Camp. Your presence and participation have given me an adventure beyond my imaginocean, but it's time for you to pay it forward, as I will continue to do, too.

It's been a privilege to be called your mentor (sometimes mermother/Tita), and an honor to witness your growth and accomplishments. I am always happy to hear from you, whether it be a message to say, "I miss you!", a visit to one of our events, or an update on your projects or your love lives (or lack thereof… charet). I hope never to take that responsibility for granted.

My gratitude runs deeper than the Mariana Trench and back, multiplied infinity times. Maraming salamat.

Keep making waves of change.


(Tita) Anna

Originally written on September 29, 2015 in London, UK

Edited on April 10, 2018 in Manila, Philippines

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