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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Belfer

Celebrating Five Years: The Little Business That Could

As I sit here and reflect on the last five years of Marine CSI, I am almost brought to tears, both from exhaustion and a sense of gratitude. It has been a long five years, but it has been rewarding, with all its twists and turns, uphill climbs, and re-evaluations. We've come a long way since our first books were published ten years ago and I'd like to take this time to reflect on the last five years of our incorporation.

In 2018, I had no idea that three months after officially becoming a for-profit business, we would have a direct hit with a hurricane. Florence made landing right through our area that September, and several schools I had already had lined up for programs had to either postpone or cancel altogether because of damage to their buildings. This was the first of many setbacks I've had to endure just getting my footing in the area.

Still, I made a concerted effort to contact as many schools in the county and with the few activities I had basic supplies for, I was able to reach two elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools through programs and STEM/STEAM night events. My correspondence and professional demeaner was tried hard that first year, giving up certain goals in order to just be present in schools that otherwise would not have paid for programming. I even traveled way out of town for an event expo featuring other science organizations, but it was too far for me to travel for actual programs throughout the year.

Year two proved a little more promising, with a lot of schools interested in hands-on learning experiences for their students, but not a lot of give with finances, as most of their budgets had gone to hurricane repairs. I only scheduled five elementary schools and one was a STEM night event. That event, though, gave me so much hope because the majority of participants were underprivileged, underserved students, who mostly spoke a different language at home. These kids were so excited to have the opportunity to dip their fingers in ice cold water and see how blubber actually works in animals they've probably only seen in books or on TV!

Between year two and three was the hardest to run an in-school business when all schools were closed and switched to virtual learning due to COVID-19. During the 2019-20 school year, schools closed in March and April, so the most important time of year for recruitment was gone. Add to that, there was a hybrid schedule well into the 2020-21 school year, hindering me from going into classrooms one day at a time, which is the usual schedule. Teachers weren't able to schedule field trips for their students when half their class would be in school different days of the week.

So, I had to think on my toes. Explore Your Watershed series evolved from desperation. While other organizations could easily switch over to virtual programming, I could not. They had biofacts (bones, claws, shells, etc.) and live animals that they could use for demonstrations and feeding programs. Because Marine CSI's programming is hands-on and small-group based, and I run this business from my home office, it was nearly impossible for me to convert what I normally do into the classrooms to a virtual setting. The books gave me an opportunity to promote our amazing local ecosystems, but my issue came with trying to promote their sales.

Not only did students have mental and academic setbacks as they returned to the classroom, but Marine CSI almost did not make it through the pandemic time. Although I was working a part-time afterschool job prior to the shutdown, that ended with the closing of schools. I was financially unable to purchase any supplies or biofacts (these can get expensive, even with replicas) that could have helped me convert several activities to virtual programming. Yet, still I tried to get myself together to start a new school year as strong as ever.

As soon as they resumed their usual in-school learning schedule in 2021-22, I kicked it into high gear and was scheduling programs regularly from December through June. It was overwhelming at times when principals asked to educate their entire school for a week at a time. I managed to get through it all and re-evaluate some of the activities to make better choices going forward. That summer, I was able to purchase much needed upgrades to the activity supplies and I was able to restructure how each activity would be presented to specific grades.

This past school year, 2022-23, proved to be a quality education year, where I returned to six schools from the previous school year's crazy schedule, and visited a total of ten new schools. Last spring, I made the best decision to expand further north to Onslow County. We've already been to six of their schools, which is more than our first two years in existence, and one teacher who wasn't able to secure funding this year, would like Marine CSI to come for several activities next year!

In January, I decided to take a major risk and offer teacher workshops, where I could show teachers a brand new way to bring marine science and environmental science into their classrooms - with our Coastal Curriculum. I developed these books to serve as a great way to do one activity a week for an entire school year. The response was small at best, and two registered teachers did not show, but sent their language arts teacher instead. It was a weird experience for me because I got to give a personal workshop to one teacher and participate in my own activities with her! I hope that it is not too late to recruit more teachers for another workshop being offered in August before the school year begins.

Last summer, I broke ground with serving a wide range of summer camp groups. Summer camps are so different from school programs, because while I usually focus on one grade at a time, camps are sometimes grouped into several grades. The group could contain kindergarteners as well as fifth graders. As I learn from my experiences, I'm more focused on working with camps who break up their campers into smaller grade groups, which match my activities better. I've got three camps lined up this summer with multiple activities throughout the upcoming weeks.

As I take a look back at the last five years, I'm excited and nervous about the next five. I'm sure there will be more hurricanes and more program cancellations. I'm sure there will be more challenges with travel costs and more expensive supplies. I have to hope and be optimistic that more teachers will understand the type of programs Marine CSI offers, and will continue to differentiate them from the largest University in the southeast coastal region. Even with my disclaimer now on my website, there may still be more expectations for live animal programs, virtual exploration, and more technologically advanced equipment. With ten new schools on our roster, and several schools on their way to our 3rd year discount pricing, I can only see an upward progression for this little business that could.

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