Stories from the Field

Board Spotlight: Jan Sweeney

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The February air at the Chesapeake Bay shoreline was cold and sharp. The sands of the beach were empty as Jan Sweeney waded into the frigid waters in search of wildlife. Jan, her brother and two friends were on a mission, and after scouring the water, they discovered loons, mallard ducks and many other species struggling to swim — all of them covered in a thick coat of inky, black petroleum.

It was the winter of 1976, and Jan’s group was rescuing wildlife in what was one of the worst oil spills in American history at the time. More than 250,000 gallons eventually leaked into the Chesapeake Bay after a barge sank near the mouth of the Potomac River during a storm. 

Jan wasn’t a biologist or a professional wildlife handler; she was a ninth-grader.

“My brother woke me up once he saw the spill on the news and just told me, ‘We’re going,’” said Jan.

They showed up to the bay, where a team of trained professionals told them that they would triage, treat and clean as many animals as their group brought back to the station. Over the course of the weekend, Jan’s group of four volunteers rescued more wildlife than anyone else and were even interviewed from the beach by Good Morning America.

“What a pivotal moment for me,” said Jan. “To have my brother be decisive and take action... and also to see what humanity’s capable of and that nature lives in such a balance.”

Jan grew up to be an avid explorer of the outdoors, running, hiking, snorkeling and canoeing her way to the west coast. She went on to run Fleet Feet Sacramento, the flagship store of the running footwear and apparel company, with Pat, her husband of 34 years. They owned and operated the business for 20 years, and through Fleet Feet, Jan created Project Fit, a free after-school running program adopted by schools across Sacramento that encouraged kids to be physically active outside.

When she and Pat retired from Fleet Feet, they also retired from Project Fit, and Jan found a void in her life; one that would soon be filled after her friend, Holly Sisneros, a long time NatureBridge supporter, connected her to former Yosemite Director Kristina Rylands. Driven by her love of the outdoors and a desire to find a new way to support students experiencing the natural world, Jan joined NatureBridge’s Yosemite Regional Board in 2019.

It didn’t take long for Jan to make another incredible contribution to NatureBridge: the Yosemite National Park Challenge, a 250-mile virtual race through Yosemite beginning at the new NatureBridge National Education Science Center and ending atop El Capitan. The race, which begins on Earth Day, April 22, 2021, tracks your progress through an interactive topographic map as you input your mileage. The Yosemite National Park Challenge was created by Fleet Feet Event Management with proceeds benefiting NatureBridge for its 50th anniversary.

NatureBridge allows children of all backgrounds to experience nature, and the ages they’re choosing...I mean when you’re in sixth to tenth grade, it’s critical. It’s life-changing.
Jan Sweeney, Yosemite Regional Board Member

Pre-pandemic, Jan joined NatureBridge students on trail in Yosemite for a half-day, which she encourages every board member to do if they can. She recalls swapping bear sighting stories with the kids, learning about “leave no trace” from the educators and everyone using a bandana for a plate during lunch.

“I thought that was so clever,” she says. “For Christmas presents, I got all my friends bandanas and told them “it’s a plate!”

It was not lost on Jan that the students eating lunch on bandanas beside her were the same age as she was when she waded through inches of oil in the Chesapeake Bay.

“What was really influential in appreciating nature to me was that reality check in 9th grade,” she says. “And NatureBridge allows children of all backgrounds to experience nature, and the ages they’re choosing...I mean when you’re in sixth to tenth grade, it’s critical. It’s life-changing.” 

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