Clayton Ferrara ’09
By Kristen Manieri
Rollins celebrates a young alum’s mission to preserve the planet.
It’s been more than two decades since Clayton Ferrara gazed across the Atlantic Ocean and decided he was going to be a biologist when he grew up. At 3, he was awed by the environment, and by 13, he was already on a mission to save it. At 24, his accomplishments and fundraising achievements for environmental causes are nothing short of extraordinary, which is why Rollins honored him with the Central Florida Young Alumni Achievement Award at this year’s Convocation.
Ferrara grew up a few miles from the ocean in Stuart, Florida. While other kids his age were skateboarding and playing video games, he was volunteering for the Florida Oceanographic Society, counting sea turtle eggs, taking care of animals, and giving educational tours. “This is all I have ever done,” Ferrara said, exuding a deep and unwavering love for the natural world.
Ferrara spent his college years at Rollins majoring in biology and environmental studies. “Clayton is passionate about animals, their biology, and the need to protect their habitats, life cycles, and feeding grounds,” Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Joe Siry said. Associate Professor of Biology Fiona Harper, another of Ferrara’s past professors, echoed Siry’s remarks. “Clayton’s love of animals, in particular reptiles, was evident throughout his career here at Rollins. I am not surprised at the direction his career has taken him and his current accomplishments.”
A month after graduation, Ferrara accepted the position of director of education at Florida’s Oakland Nature Preserve, a 128-acre, nonprofit nature preserve and environmental education center. As the first education director for the preserve, Ferrara was tasked with creating educational programs to further the preserve’s mission to help visitors explore and understand the history and ecology of Central Florida.
In between saving baby opossums and nursing turtles back to health, Ferrara taught visiting students from local schools (including Rollins), launched a website, created a summer camp, designed signs to help visitors identity plant and animal life at the preserve, and created and led a monthly lecture series called the “Nature of our Nature.”
“Education is unbelievably rewarding,” Ferrara shared. “When you really love something, you are almost obsessed with sharing it with other people.” His passion for teaching was eclipsed only by his knack for fundraising: Ferrara and his team raised more than $100,000 in grants in the two years he worked with the Oakland Nature Preserve.
Two years later, the initiatives Ferrara created blossomed into self-sustaining and volunteer-managed programs, so he moved on to launch his own nonprofit organization. With a mission to teach science, music and art to people of all ages, the organization attacks what Ferrara calls “a poverty of the spirit.”
“People, especially in Western cultures, are growing up never having a passion or never being able to act on it or do something they love,” he said. “It makes a lot of people bitter and ambivalent. That is what my organization combats through a very unique approach to education.”
When he’s not designing unique educational programming at TFI, you’ll find him partnering with groups like the Turtle Survival Alliance and Florida Wildlife Foundation. In 2009, Ferrara joined several Florida wildlife protection groups in successfully banning the export of softshell turtles to China. Ferrara is also the national science director for the Intellectual Decisions on Environmental Awareness Solutions (IDEAS), a national activist and educational group recently named a “Champion of Change” by the White House.
For his latest endeavor, Project Sommerville, Ferrara is looking to raise $5 million to build a YMCA-style community facility anchored in health, nutrition, and ecology.
Nearly everything Ferrara does, including writing the children’s book Our Green Earth, revolves around his mission to expose as many people as he can “to the wonderful world of nature around them so that they care for it, admire it, and protect it as an essential element to their own happiness.” One person at a time, Ferrara is inspiring people to preserve a corner of our world.