“A young man walked along a beach strewn with thousands of sea stars, bleached and dying after a storm. An older man was picking them up, one by one, and flinging them back into the ocean.“Why do you bother?” the young man asked. “You’re not saving enough to make a difference.” The older man picked up another sea star and sent it spinning back into the surf. He watched the spot where it landed for a few seconds, then turned to the young man. ‘Made a difference to that one’, he said.” …
By Donia Moore
New Ideas Can Make a Difference - at Any Age
Rhoda Rafkin is still making a difference in the lives of countless children through her work with special needs children at the Ocean Institute and beyond. At age 95, she routinely spends one day a week working for the popular marine education center searching out grants to help support the program she founded in 1989.
Her founding funder was San Clemente’s Coral Thrift Store in San Clemente. Close friends and neighbors Inez Smith and Rachel Henley were influential in getting the store to contribute the first $1,500 to her fledging program. The Coral Thrift still contributes regularly to the Ocean in Motion project.
The Sand Dollar Guild, another long-time donor to Rhoda’s project, is an organization founded by friends of the Ocean Institute, many of whom live in San Clemente. For many years, Rhoda has been a supporter of the Sand Dollars and her passion for this program ignited her friends to commit to her cause.
Rhoda, originally from New Haven, Connecticut, and husband Gerry had settled in California’s Mojave Desert in China Lake. It was on a vacation to Laguna Beach that they discovered San Clemente. They loved the beach community and after 15 years in China Lake, they pulled up stakes and moved west with their children Louise and Rocky.
Gerry loved playing San Clemente’s municipal golf course, where son Rocky is now a teaching pro. Rhoda was thrilled to be living near the ocean. Armed with her Bachelors of Science degree in Special Education from Southern Connecticut State University, and a teaching credential from Yale University, she decided to go back into teaching the special needs kids that she loved. She attended Saddleback College for marine biology courses that would enhance her ability to teach them about the ocean environment.
From 1969 to 1977 she taught special needs children in the Capistrano Unified School District. Rhoda also found time to serve as a Girl Scout Leader and on the Community Beautification Committee in San Clemente. Her concern for the welfare of the people in her community showed itself in her three years of participation with the Listening Ears Hotline (drugs).
Special Programs for Special Needs
As a long time Ocean Institute (then called the Marine Institute) volunteer who became an instructor in 1982, Rhoda noticed that special needs children were being put into classes with children who did not have special needs. She had taught special needs children in the public school system and noticed that the learning styles were vastly different. She felt that the special needs students were not receiving the extra attention they required to fully enjoy the learning experience. Many of these children could not even make the physical trip to the Ocean Institute, so Rhoda’s program included the purchase of a specially outfitted van that could take the ocean experience to those students in their own school settings. Dr. Stan Cummings, then Director of the Ocean Institute, supported her remarkable idea and Ocean in Motion was born.
As the Ocean Institute celebrates its 40th anniversary, Rhoda celebrates 35 years of dedicated service to the former Marine Institute (renamed Ocean Institute) along with it. The program has continued since its inception and is now an integral part of the Ocean Institute’s outreach program. Two of Rhoda’s favorite programs involve information about the dangers of plastics and the demise of sea turtles.
Travels with Jetty and His Friends
A trip with the Ocean in Motion program starts by loading up the van at the Institute with living animals that can travel well for the forays to Orange County schools and occasionally beyond. Of course, their needs are considered and appropriate containers hold water, oxygenating bubblers, and temperature controls to keep the animals healthy and happy.
“This also helped teach the children regard for any animals in their care.” emphasizes Rhoda. Funny Hermit crabs, rough sea stars, smooth sea snails, pokey sea urchins, and a pond turtle (the only fresh water animal at the Institute) fondly named Jetty are the usual denizens of the van. (Descriptions of the animals are the children’s own words for them.)
Rhoda’s program supports the care and transport of the animals being viewed and touched by many little fingers over the course of each visit. Specially trained instructors, supplemented with picture books and stories, give the children a real feel for the ocean in the reassuring comfort of their school classroom.
These sensory experiences could not be possible without the support of the dedicated instructors at the Ocean Institute, now under the guidance of Rhoda’s friend and fellow instructor, Danelle Hickman. San Clemente resident Erika Gardner, another long-time instructor and close friend of Rhoda’s, also helps to carry on Rhoda’ s vision for the program.
“My dream is to save our oceans from the detrimental effects of plastics and other toxic materials and educating children about the dangers modern life poses to marine life. Plastics are especially harmful to fish, and that’s really concerning to me,” says Rhoda.
Rhoda’s concern with ocean ecology also led her to take part in protests against the building of San Onofre Nuclear Power plant.
“I love the ocean and it’s crucial to our survival”, she said.
Rhoda retired from instructing at the Ocean Institute, but her passion for its programs still drives her. Every week, she spends one day a week working from home researching grants to support the program. She focuses on securing funding for underserved kids to visit the institute and to further fund the special needs program in multiple school districts.
In Rhoda’s words, “That’s a good question.” Work goals are not her only interests. She looks forward to returning to her yoga class at the San Clemente Senior Center after recovering from a fall. She wants to go see the wildflowers in bloom in Anza-Borrego, tend her lovely garden, and go visit her daughter in Northern California’s Bay area.
Through her work, Rhoda and her special team of instructors have visited virtually every special needs classroom in South Orange County. Students have drawn inspiration from their talks. Several years ago, teachers were jubilant when one little girl in a special needs class spoke for the very first time ever when she had an opportunity to interact with a slimy squid that Rhoda had brought on a visit. This is vintage Rhoda - making a difference, one child at a time.