Changing Tides

SoundWaters embarks on new Harbor Center, reflecting decades of protecting Long Island Sound

The view from the water of the proposed center, now under construction – Renderings courtesy of Soundwaters

When we think of Connecticut’s landscape, gratitude isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind. Bustling, maybe. Pretty, sure. But gratitude tends to fit more in our personal lexicon than it does the coterie consciousness. For SoundWaters (, an environmental and maritime organization based in Stamford, gratitude is the foundation for all things past, present and future. Long Island Sound is Connecticut’s biggest and most vital natural resource—having a critical role in the state’s economy and, subsequently, its preservation—and the organization has safeguarded this treasure since 1989. Now, with a generous donation from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation of Stamford, SoundWaters is expanding its mission further. In the coming year, SoundWaters will set sail on its new Cohen SoundWaters Harbor Center in the newly revitalized Boccuzzi Park. The organization, a nonprofit, will be able to expand its youth and educational services as well as its research and community-involvement initiatives within its three distinct programs: Young Mariners, Harbor Corps and Research Intensive.

“At SoundWaters, we believe that our community is stronger when we are connected to, and learning from, the Sound,” says President Leigh Shemitz. “Complementing our existing Coastal Education Center and schooner, the Cohen SoundWaters Harbor Center in Boccuzzi Park will enable the next generation to develop life skills, job skills and college skills through study and training on Long Island Sound.” That helps us all.

above: The Holly House education center located at Cove Island Park. left: SoundWaters President Leigh Shemitz. below: The teaching schooner. – Photographs by Mike Bagley; Cove Island by Diane Sembrot

The Launch
SoundWaters formed its green-collar roots in a time of dire necessity. In the 1990s Long Island Sound was facing extreme degradation caused by industrial waste and resource mismanagement, among other contributing factors. Len Miller, SoundWaters founder, read about the crisis in The Advocate and took this as a call to action—action in the form of expedition. He and a group of friends purchased an eighteenth-century Chesapeake Bay Sharpie schooner and converted the vessel into a floating classroom, which sailed from Stamford to Bridgeport and as far as Greenport, New York, and back. By the 2000s, Miller and his associates had expanded its environmental education outreach to include land-based teaching centers hosting more than 32,000 students annually at the historic Holly House landmark in Cove Island Park, as well as by schooner by 2016. With the expansion of classrooms, aquariums and lab spaces, SoundWaters was able to add a summertime camp and after-school and vacation programs to reach even more students year-round.

Using its progressive approach to environmental science as the foreground for its success, SoundWaters has been able to stay afloat with assistance from federal funding, scholarship advancements and community-outreach programs. With this support, SoundWaters was able to reach underserved individuals who had interest in learning but could not afford to pay for it. Alongside the merger with the Young Mariners Foundation—an academic and life-skills group reaching low-income and at-risk students through after-school enrichment and sailing programs—SoundWaters formed Young Mariners STEM Academy. Each summer it hosts more than 100 students, grades 6 through 9, engaging in activities such as navigation, marine biology and climatology while encouraging teamwork, leadership and community skills.

SoundWaters education programs include hands-on learning on land and on the water. – Photographs by Mike Bagley

Each person makes a difference—read on for SoundWaters’s suggestions for adopting environmental-friendly habits.

Minimize the spread of pollutants to Long Island Sound: Keep litter and waste out of gutters and storm drains, because they drain directly to the Sound. Apply fertilizers and pesticides sparingly, and not before it rains. Dispose of household chemicals properly and clean up spills. If your house has a septic system, make sure it is inspected annually to prevent damaging leaks.

Prevent dangerous microplastics: Drink from reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic bottles. Disposed of improperly, plastic degrades into microplastics, which are a tremendous threat to the health of Long Island Sound and its inhabitants.

Protect rivers and streams: The Long Island Sound watershed includes interconnected waterways, large and small, that extend all the way to the Canadian border. Protecting our upland rivers and streams will help protect Long Island Sound.’

Naomi Solares, alumni and staff member – Photographs by Mike Bagley

When I started volunteering with SoundWaters, my goal was to pursue a career in medicine. But after years of after-school programs and summer camps, I’ve discovered a surprising love for children and teaching. Now, as I finish my environmental science degree, my focus has shifted from a career in research and policy to an educational approach. I’ve discovered that there is joy and importance in teaching kids about sustainability and the environment. I’ve realized that widespread access to environmental-science education is imperative for our future generations and truly believe that organizations like SoundWaters could be key factors in achieving this.

-NAOMI SOLARES, Stamford resident and senior at UConn Stamford

On the Horizon

By 2022 the new Harbor Center will serve as a culmination of nearly three decades of environmental beneficence. The dream for this 12,100-square-foot building, and accompanying beach restoration and waterfront access, becomes a reality due in large part to a generous grant from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. It has provided nearly $625 million toward helping nonprofits in various sectors, including the arts, underserved communities, children’s healthcare, education and disease research since 2001. Fulfilling their mission of “inspired giving,” President Alexandra Cohen says benefiting SoundWaters is no exception. “SoundWaters has been a vital organization in our community, educating our young people and inspiring them to protect Long Island Sound,” she says. “We hope the new Harbor Center will allow SoundWaters to expand and deepen the impact they have, changing lives today and preserving our resources for the future. The next generation will hold a lot of responsibility in caring for our environment, and we are excited to be partnering with SoundWaters on their efforts.”

left: Dan Brown and Yasmine Amezzane practice their sailing skills. top, right: SoundWaters schooner. below, right: Alexandra Cohen, whose generous donation made the new center possible. – Photographs by Mike Bagley; Alexandra Cohen courtesy of SoundWaters

With the ongoing effects of the pandemic and the ever-more vocal calls about the implications of global climate change, SoundWaters champions the belief that “living in a healthy community is a basic human right.” For that reason, it campaigns not only for environmental justice for our ecosystems, but also for the environmental equity and amenity for everyone. In other words, without access to green spaces, clean waters and non-polluted air, the conversation about environmentalism hits a dead end. Environmental focus also precipitates job infrastructure, educational opportunities and egalitarian beliefs that extend to future generations. The organization remains committed to teaching students how the environment impacts all of us and to growing and learning itself. With SoundWaters’ continued commitment to protect, educate about, advocate for and share our local waters, Stamford’s role is also made clear.

SoundWaters has been a vital organization in our community, educating our young people and inspiring them to protect Long Island Sound.

-ALEXANDRA COHEN, President of the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation

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