By Stephen Moore
Five years ago, Alex Ridley, board president at Sandoway Discovery Center, moved his family from the Boston area to Delray Beach to start another chapter of the family’s life — and to escape the cold winters.
Ridley and his wife, Rosana, brought their children — Christopher, now 14, Leo, 12, and Alby, 7 — to South Florida, where he had often come to vacation.
“I had been coming to Ocean Ridge since the ’70s where my grandparents had a home,” Ridley said.
In Delray Beach, Ridley found a new lifestyle — a place where his kids could play soccer year round, and his Brazilian-born wife could enjoy the warmer climate she craved. Ridley could drive a couple of miles to his office — or a golf course on A1A, playing whenever he wanted. He runs a family business based in Delray Beach.
“I do a mix of investments, trustee work, estate planning and philanthropy, admittedly expert at none but a solid working knowledge of all,” he says.
Delray Beach is also where he found Sandoway and met Executive Director Danica Sanborn.
“I got involved with Sandoway because before we moved here I was on the board of a grant-making organization,” said Ridley, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I wanted to get involved in a local organization. I poked around and met with Danica Sanborn and talked to her about some of the center’s needs. There was a clear skill set that they needed and I had from my previous career.”
Ridley, 46, has a background in finance and interest in conservation. After graduating with a degree in history from Pitzer College in Claremont, California, in 1995, he took a job with Merrill Lynch. After seven years there, he began working for The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest conservation nonprofits in the world.
“I was the associate director of development and also worked in fundraising,” Ridley said. “I worked in finance for a while and I wanted to do something different and was lucky enough to get a job at The Nature Conservancy, admittedly not knowing a lot about conservation but learned along the way. It was interesting to go from the world’s largest conservation organization to Sandoway, arguably one of the smallest.”
At Sandoway, he works closely with a supportive and experienced board — and with Sanborn, who oversees two other full-time employees and one part-time employee, a score of volunteers and more than 60 animals. The center attracts more than 22,000 visitors a year.
“Over the last five to 10 years, under the leadership of our previous board president, Ann Heilakka, the center has transformed from really a visitor center to a true education center,” Ridley said. “We now teach over 6,000 students who have participated in one of our tailored education programs. We teach to the Sunshine State Standards, a variety of classes. We teach Palm Beach County’s only climate change class, which won the 2019 Pine Jog Environmental Program of the Year.”
Sanborn says Ridley has had a big impact on the center. “His expertise in grant writing and donor cultivation has helped bring in thousands of dollars annually,” she said. “He is highly dedicated and eager to move Sandoway toward its mission of providing experiential environmental education to students and visitors.”
He and the center face some challenges — perfecting the balance between being a visitor center and an educational center; diversifying the revenue stream and moving from an event-based fundraising model to a donor-based model; and maximizing the space in the 3,581-square-foot, two-story Sandoway House.
Designed by noted architect Samuel Ogren Sr., the house was built in 1936 and is listed in Delray Beach’s local Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.
The center has met some challenges with the hiring of Evan Orellana several years ago as a full-time director of education and Amanda Clough as a full-time naturalist.
“We have a goal that every visitor who comes in gets some personal interaction with one of our educators,” Ridley said. “Whether it is seeing a shark feeding or interacting with a snake — and they leave saying ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know that.’”
More improvements are in the works, from upgrading the appearance of the building to hiring a full-time membership director. And the board has plans to enhance the center with a new, larger stingray touch tank.
“For a small space, at times we are bursting at the seams,” Ridley said. “But I have expertise and experience in grant writing, so we have been lucky enough to secure some important funding from a number of Palm Beach County foundations, and that has allowed us to expand our offering.”
So this next chapter in the life of the Ridley family is taking shape.
“This place is too unique, too special to be constantly trying to stick your finger into the monetary dike,” Ridley said. “That’s my goal and, when my time is up, I hope I leave the place looking better and in better fiscal shape. I don’t always get it right, but I do care and I do try and two out of three is not bad.”