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Written by: Natalia Brown

Not every non-profit organization is fortunate enough to have a group of people invested in advancing its mission. Here, at Debris Free Oceans, we are supported by waste reduction champions from across the United States. This quick read offers a glimpse into the people and shared moments that brought our founders’ vision to life.

Caiti Waks is the ringleader of our bunch. She is a long-time advocate for marine ecosystem conservation and the soon-to-be mother of our team’s first beach-cleaning baby! She is a University of Florida alum with extensive knowledge of coastal and marine law and policy. As a student, Caiti took part in a cross-country bicycling trip to raise money and awareness for young adults with cancer. The idea to start Debris Free Oceans was born of her desire to address the escalating plastic pollution problem, which she literally couldn’t avoid while stumbling over debris throughout the cycling trip. This brain-child began to take shape with the help of her best friend from law school Saira Fida and now husband Jeremy Waks.

According to The World Economic Forumn,” plastic marine debris may outweigh the fish in our oceans by 2050 (2016).

Co-founder Jeremy Waks is an avid diver and surfer with a life-long passion for the sea. After studying Environmental Science at the University of Florida, he delved into building this organization alongside Caiti and Saira. Jeremy is also an environmentally-conscious business owner and member of the Miami Beach Sustainability Committee.

DFO Co-Founder and Treasurer Saira Fida joined the dream team with great joy to be working alongside her best friend and “a genuine desire to leave the world a little better than [she] found it.” Saira was born and raised in the Sunshine State, where she’s cherished a strong connection to our native ecosystems.

She is also an avid yogi who, much like her passion for sustainability, aims to make the practice more accessible and approachable to those who many not feel confident or flexible enough, as she once did.

Nathan Laxague is our Director of Science⁠: a point person for the technical insight that contributes to our communication with the Miami community. He joined the team as our organization was only starting up, in the midst of working towards his doctorate degree in Applied Marine Physics. Over the years, Nathan has engaged our leadership team in discussions of recent findings on air-sea interaction physics, ocean surface currents, pollutant transport, and movement patterns that affect the spread of marine debris.

He is now studying physical air-sea interactions as a post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Fun Fact: Nathan married someone he met at DFO’s very first Keg + Klean event!

Tracy Nolan also joined the organization in its early days, and she’s been deeply devoted to our mission since. She actually presented her master’s thesis on how this non-profit was built from the ground up!

Tracy worked closely with Caiti to develop many of the engaging educational materials that we use to inform community members and inspire students to take action against plastic pollution.

Although she is no longer living in Miami, we are proud that Tracy continues to spread our organization’s mission while advocating for marine conservation and environmental sustainability!

As our Eco-Fashion Director, Colleen Coughlin educates and inspires the Miami community to strive for zero-waste living through lifestyle and fashion. She holds degrees in both Apparel Design from SUNY College at Buffalo and Textile/Surface Design from The Fashion Institute of Technology.

Frustrated with the incredible waste she saw as a Victoria’s Secret Designer, Colleen quit her job and founded TheFullEdit. This professional closet editing service helps people cut their individual fashion waste, resells high-quality pieces, and up-cycles fabrics. She brings over 13 years of NYC design experience to her endeavorshaving worked with fashion and lifestyle companies such as VSPINK, C2C, Tesla, StartUpFashion, the NBA, Elle, Nylon, and Glamour.

Fun fact: Colleen co-organized Miami’s First Annual Eco Fashion Show!

Ana Meira is our strategy-savvy, creative media guru. With her innovative ideas and brand development experience, she has revamped our online media presence. She’s the person to thank for all these aesthetically pleasing and accessible online resources! She is also a proud advocate for land and resource conservation as a board member of the Florida National Parks Association.

Fun Fact: Ana has skills that transcend beyond our borders! She speaks English, Spanish, Galician, Italian, French and Portuguese.

Maddie Kaufman got involved with Debris Free Oceans after attending a collaborative dive trip we co-hosted with Rescue a Reef (RAR). At this event, recreational divers helped to plant 100 corals and remove 200+ pounds of debris! She went on to work at South Beach Divers and become a PADI divemaster, volunteer as our Outreach Coordinator, and volunteer in the University of Miami Coral Restoration Lab that runs RAR.

Fun Fact: Maddie ended up living with Katy (her dive buddy from this trip) for two years, and she is now dating Dalton (RAR Program Manager). We can’t help but wonder where she would be if she hadn’t had joined us for that trip!

Maddie spearheaded our Dive Against Debris program, through which we’ve been able to run monthly reef cleanups out of the Miami Beach marina and collect and submit debris data to PADI Project AWARE and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. DFO is one of the only groups to run these dives regularly in Miami-Dade County!

Dalton Hesley has been a proud supporter and strong contributor to the advancement of our mission for years! He is the Program Manager for Rescue a Reef, a citizen science program using science-based techniques to grow threatened coal species and restore coral reefs at the University of Miami. Soon after learning about Debris Free Oceans, he and Caiti teamed up to organize a collaborative offshore coral reef cleanup and restoration expedition called Save the Reef. The event was a tremendous hit with a serious ripple effect! We have hosted annual cleanup and restoration excursions, and collaborated on many other projects since.

With her great compassion and vibrant energy, it’s no surprise that Katy Roth also joined the DFO team and began forging meaningful connections soon after attending our very first dive clean-up! Growing up in Kansas, ocean protection wasn’t exactly a hot topic during her childhood. Katy’s passion for positive change and interest in environmentalism led her to connect with our community, her waste stream, and the amazing oceans that surround us … even from afar in one the most landlocked states! Katy is especially proud of the strength and grounded optimism expressed by the DFO team in addressing the weighty environmental challenges we are facing as a society.

Sofia Mesa is a fashion-forward, plant-based powerhouse and the first of our team to experience the full breadth of the Chef Andrew Scholar Program. She has educated over 1,300 students on the effects of plastic pollution and will be directing the continuation of this program.

Fun Fact: Both Sofia and Esther Cai (recently inaugurated Chef Andrew Scholar) learned about our mission through DFO marine debris education presentations hosted at their high schools. Their journeys to inspire other young people to embrace sustainability bring the educational component of our mission full-circle!

I’m Natalia Brown— student researcher, avid small business supporter, and lover of all things sunny and sandy. When I first learned about DFO, I was immediately drawn to the ties between the organization’s mission and my personal values. Most recently, I’ve been conducting research on the use of recycled aggregate, nonmetallic reinforcements, and seawater in a more sustainable alternative to conventional concrete used in coastal infrastructure. I am ecstatic to be working with the Debris Free Oceans team over the coming months.

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