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Florida’s ‘Gray Greens’ are mobilizing to save the environment

Elders have long played a key role in the conservation movement. Tampa Bay seniors are using their resources and time to combat climate change together.

When conservationist DeeVon Quirolo moved to Brooksville 13 years ago from the Keys, she thought her days of environmental activism were over.

Instead, the 72-year-old became the driver behind a multi-year fight to try to prevent mining expansion in Hernando County.

She lost the effort in 2019, but has kept up the fight. She is coordinating endorsements from the Sierra Club Adventure Coast Group for the 2020 elections and sending out mailers to prospective voters.

“My activism is my rent for living on the planet,” Quirolo said.

Members of the Sierra Club Adventure Coast Group, DeeVon Quirolo third from the right, pose at the 2019 Climate March in St. Petersburg. [ DeeVon Quirolo ]

Young people have taken to the streets across the country to press for a Green New Deal, but elders also play a key role in the conservation movement. Some have been at this a long time, and for others, this is a new and important fight.

Tampa Bay seniors say they are listening to — and making room for — younger activists, but they often have more resources and time to work toward a greener earth.

Rocky Milburn, vice chair of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, estimates that of its 3,600 members, 80 percent are seniors. And the club is growing as more people move to Florida and the environment worsens, he said.

“We are a graying group,” he said, but an active one.

In 2018, when a developer moved to fill in waterways near Tampa’s Rocky Point neighborhood, about 100 elders flocked to a city council meeting and convinced council members to block the move, he said.

Elders should be “models for the younger folks coming up” and use their experience to mentor them, Milburn said. His chapter hosts Inspiring Connections Outdoors, a national Sierra Club program, where trained leaders take 25 to 30 Tampa Bay fifth-graders on field trips every month. The chapter also mentors students from A. P. Leto High School in Tampa Bay and gives them Sierra Club memberships if they accompany younger students on the outings.

The elder climate movement is a national one, said Geri Freedman, co-chair of Elders Climate Action.

“When we first started in 2014, the sole motivator at that time was for our grandchildren and future generations,” she said. “In our wildest dreams, we could not believe that we would be witnessing such climate change within such a short period of time.”

Members meet with legislators who can push for policy changes, Freeman said. And they participate in “Elders Promote the Vote,” a campaign to text environmentalists who have poor voting records to vote. The organization is nonpartisan, Freeman said, so elders don’t tell citizens how to vote — just that they should. The organization also encourages elders to join local letter-writing campaigns to businesses and legislators on the issues of climate change.

“When the voice of elders is unified, we’re hoping that we can have some major impact,” she said.

The group has grown to more than 12,000 members with chapters in 13 states, according to Freeman. Their dream is to engage even more seniors, given that there are more than 80 million people over 55 in the country. The Florida chapter is a year old and has 48 members, she said, and the national organization has 160 members throughout the state.

In Florida, two of the biggest threats of climate change are sea-level rise and increasingly devastating hurricanes, said Dr. Paul Robinson of Tarpon Springs.

Dr. Paul Robinson works on harvesting fresh herbs on Wednesday, from a stand of plants in his native Florida yard in Tarpon Springs. Robinson is a founding member of Turn the Tide for Tarpon Springs and became passionate about mitigating the effects of climate change after seeing how it was affecting his patients. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Robinson, a retired emergency doctor, said he saw how climate change was affecting the health of his patients. The 72-year-old helped found Turn the Tide for Tarpon last year, a group of residents who want the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners to establish sustainability goals. So far, Robinson said, they have convinced the city to create a sustainability committee, which meets once a month.

Robinson moved to Tarpon Springs in 2010, but had visited his wife’s hometown often over the years. The increase in high-tide flooding has been obvious over his lifetime, he said. Robinson wants to protect the seaside town’s beauty for his grandchildren, who are 2 and 5.

Sandra Duenas, right, joined about 150 protesters from a variety of local groups for a demonstration in front of the Tampa district office of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio on West Kennedy Blvd. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Sandra Duenas, 57, became interested in environmental justice while in grade school in Venezuela. Duenas' teacher took the class on a field trip to Lake Maracaibo, which became contaminated after companies drilled for oil. She helped record the stories of area residents and learned how indigenous people often are exposed to environmental injustice.

Duenas moved to the United States when she was 16 and became a data scientist. But she didn’t forget the lessons of her childhood.

She helped stop a nuclear waste plant from coming to Gainesville while in college at the University of Florida. She attended seminars on climate change. And in 2017, when President Trump repealed some environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration, Duenas decided to attend the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. Then she came home to Tampa and made data visuals for the Tampa Bay Sierra Club that explained how 50 years from now, downtown Tampa will be under water.

In the coming year, Duenas plans to help with the club’s monthly Inspiring Connections Outdoors outings for children. It’s important that children experience Florida’s natural beauty and work to protect it, she said. “I feel a responsibility for environmental justice, because that’s the right thing to do.”

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