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The Change Agent Behind SeaChange

Orange County's Valarie Whiting Creates Local Event with Global Impact

“There’s no shortage of challenges in the world; follow your heart,” advises an energized Valarie Whiting from her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in California’s Orange County. Whiting has just returned from a trip to Chile where she attended a board meeting for Oceana, the organization that has captured her heart.

As a young girl growing up in San Diego, Whiting’s father would take her to local beaches and point out plants and animals. The time with her father ignited Whiting’s passion for the ocean.

When Whiting was 11, her father died and the family relocated to a small town in Wyoming. “It was culture shock,” says Whiting. “It was good to see how other people live, but I have to be by the ocean.” After her career took her to Texas and Colorado, Whiting returned to the coast and settled in Orange County.

Though she boasts a degree in experimental psychology, Whiting went immediately into the business world, becoming successful in mergers and acquisitions and business development in the oil and gas and telecommunications industries.

Around the age of 40, Whiting retired and she and her husband David, already retired, traveled the world. When the couple cut back a bit on their traveling, Valarie Whiting found herself with time on her hands.

First Taste of Volunteer Leadership: Girls, Inc.

With her newfound time and a passion for giving back, three years ago Whiting joined the board of Girls Incorporated of Orange County.

“Girls Inc. is really the first organization I got deeply involved with,” says Whiting. “It’s a great organization, with an active OC chapter. They have programs that really help girls in the community with mentoring, after school activities and tutoring.”

Prompted to Do Something Meaningful

“My other passion is the environment,” says Whiting. “I looked at the ocean and I thought ‘What can I do?’”

Whiting, a certified scuba diver, has seen first-hand the damage people have done to the world’s oceans. “Awareness is a good thing,” says Whiting, “but it can be a curse. You can’t forget.”

Whiting began to seriously research the issue of ocean conservation. “What I saw and learned prompted me to do something meaningful,” says Whiting. “I wanted to work with an organization with global impact.”

Honing in on Oceana’s work, Whiting continued what she calls “extensive due diligence,” meeting with board members to figure out if Oceana was the right organization for Whiting’s investment of time and passion.

Oceana’s Unbelievable Victories

“Oceana’s business model is very sophisticated and very effective,” says Whiting. “They have unbelievable victories because of their approach.”

“It almost seems like too much,” says Whiting. “The oceans are big, the problems are big, but most sea life exists within 200 miles offshore. Every country can take control of up to 200 miles, and Oceana can work with individual countries to help. This approach makes it manageable.”

Oceana gives itself three to five years to win, lose or draw with each initiative. Though the organization has been around for less than a decade, Oceana boasts dozens of policy victories protecting marine life and habitats.

In 2009 alone, Oceana has announced 17 victories, including successful advocacy for legislation in several countries that will limit the damage of industrial fishing, ban irresponsible shark catching, and protect coral reefs and sea life.

Raising Friends and Funds

“I approached Oceana with the idea that I would help in some way. I thought I could do a project to raise awareness and resources,” says Whiting. “After all, if I have this feeling [about the importance of the oceans], there must be other people in Orange County that do, too.”

Whiting enlisted the help of Julie Hill, a friend in the business world who shared Whiting’s passion. Together, they created the SeaChange Summer Party, an event Whiting calls a “friendraiser and fundraiser.”

“It’s not an original idea [to have an event like this],” says Whiting. “The ocean is the main economic engine for Orange County – diving, fishing, tourism. Most people haven’t heard of Oceana, so it’s raising awareness. The biggest challenge is to deal with the fear of failure. Will people show up? Will people help?”

A successful event required Whiting and her friends to find likeminded people.

“We knew we had to engage the community. We went out and met with business and community leaders and educators,” says Whiting about securing buy-in, sponsorship and participation.

The event had to be held on a home overlooking the ocean, Whiting thought, and convinced a local Laguna Beach couple to host the event at their Laguna Beach estate. “They helped make SeaChange a reality,” says Whiting.

In July 2008, some 450 people attended the first SeaChange Summer Party at Villa di Sogni, raising a tremendous $850,000 for Oceana’s work.

The event honored actors Harrison Ford and Sam Waterston as well as sustainability expert John Picard. Renowned artist Dale Chihuly designed the awards. Honorees and other celebrities – including Diane Keaton, Calista Flockhart and Diane Lane – walked the “blue carpet” and donated auction items like Indiana Jones’ fedora and walk-on television roles.

In its second year, SeaChange raised an additional $900,000 and attracted celebrities including Glenn Close, Morgan Freeman, Ted Danson, Harrison Ford, Jeff Goldblum, Kate Walsch, Anne Heche, Lauren Hutton, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Penny Marshall.

“SeaChange is more than I expected,” Whiting says simply.

A More Powerful Position

Last year, Oceana asked Whiting to join its 14-member board of directors.

“Being on the board has had a big impact,” says Whiting. “It has been an education and made me much more knowledgeable about ocean issues. It’s very rewarding work, and a more powerful position [to] make an impact on the ocean.”

“We are incredibly lucky to have Valarie Whiting on our board of directors,” says Oceana’s CEO, Andrew F. Sharpless. “Not only has Valarie created, with the help of her amazing network, the largest environmental fundraiser in Orange County and put Oceana on the map there, she has also brought a wealth of experience and ideas for our campaigns all around the world.”

Persistence and Passion

A woman who calls herself “hopelessly inquisitive,” Valarie Whiting has become an agent of change.

“It’s therapeutic and healthy to stop wringing your hands and do something about it,” says Whiting. “Participate in the solution.”

Whiting notes the “growing ethos to give back,” and encourages people to “choose [a cause to support] from your heart.”

“With the internet, it’s not hard to do,” says Whiting. “Assess your skills that organizations can use. Nonprofits are always underfunded and understaffed with limited resources and unlimited challenges. Pick up the phone, send an email, contact them and say ‘I want to help.’ Be persistent and passionate.”

“Don’t ever think your contribution is too small to matter,” says Whiting. “Taking risks is how we grow.”

Inspiring words from the woman who looked at the ocean, wondered how she could help, and ended up creating a sea change.

Oceana’s Work

Stop Ocean Pollution: Keeping the oceans free of pollutants that threaten marine habitats, wildlife and humans.
Promote Responsible Fishing: Reducing overfishing and destructive fishing methods that destroy habitat and kill wildlife.
Protect Marine Wildlife: Protecting the marine creatures, such as sea turtles and sharks, that are most at risk from irresponsible fishing methods.
Climate and Energy: Combating the effectives of climate change on the oceans and advocating for cleaner energy.
Preserve Special Places: Protecting some of the world’s most beautiful and threatened marine places, from the Arctic to Patagonia.
Oceana on the Water: On the water to document species, monitor irresponsible fishing and propose new protected areas.
(Credit: na.oceana.org)

—Molly

Tagged in: eco, sustainability, oceana, philanthropy, environment, ocean health, ted danson, seachange, oceana foundation, ocean restoration, ocean protection plan, valarie whiting, oceana seachange summer party 2009,

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