Southwest Florida’s Defenders of the Gulf

Seven locals, from Everglades City to Fort Myers Beach, work to keep our home beautiful.

BY April 1, 2023
2023 Defenders of the Gulf Photographed at The Rod & Gun Club in Everglades City
Photographed at The Rod & Gun Club in Everglades City (Photography by Anna Nguyen)

Amy Wicks

Civil Engineer, Babcock Ranch

Amy Wicks had just graduated with a civil engineering degree from Indiana’s Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and made the trek to the Sunshine State when her new boss at Johnson Engineering dropped an assignment on her desk. “Don’t mess it up,” he said.

It was 2006, and the assignment was retired NFL player Syd Kitson’s Babcock Ranch. Amy was in over her head; she was tasked with mapping out a sustainable, storm-safe water system for the 27-square-mile, solar-powered community. While working full-time, she enrolled at University of Florida for her master’s degree, tailoring her studies to help her create something truly innovative. She spent 12 years on the project before Babcock welcomed its first resident in 2018. “My whole career has been an adaptation to this new concept—I don’t know anything other than constantly changing, constantly evolving and looking for new ideas for how to do things,” Amy says. 

At Babcock Ranch, she added strategic greenspaces—perfect for an afternoon soccer game for neighborhood kids—that collect excess water in the event of flooding. The water filters through the grass, then seeps through overland treatment areas, known as bio-trails, where it absorbs nutrients from the soil and native vegetation before flowing into retention ponds throughout the community. The water is cleansed again when it flows from the ponds to the created wetlands Amy designed with native plants to mimic Florida’s natural swamps. “I’m not trying to out-nature nature,” she says.

Amy Wicks (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Sixteen years later, Amy’s plans proved effective when Hurricane Ian hit and Babcock was nearly unaffected. “Syd called me into his office Tuesday morning [before the storm] and asked, ‘How’s this going to perform?’” she recalls. “It was a stressful question, but I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, Syd. I think it’s going to work.’” And it did. Amy lives in the solar-powered community with her husband and three children, Callisia, Xyris and Acer (all named after native plants throughout Babcock). Amy kept peeking out her window as the storm went on, watching her systems work as the retention ponds and multipurpose greenspaces kept the lake’s ocean-like waves from crashing into the surrounding homes.

Her career has been flush with ecological practices, innovative systems and city planning that is at one with nature. She’s now vice president at Kimley-Horn, where she continued her work with Babcock when she started in 2014, and is working with Lee County on the Larry Kiker Preserve—the second-largest land acquisition from the county’s Conservation 20/20 program—that banks on water quality features similar to those at Babcock. “I want more of these projects; they’re important to society in general,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of damage to our bodies of water, and we need to fix it.” Jaynie Bartley


Jess Ryals

Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems Agent, UF/IFAS

Jess Ryals, who works with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Collier County, has a vision for grocery shopping in Southwest Florida. Imagine browsing the markets to find locally sourced kale microgreens from the Naples Micro-Farm, jars of honey from Walker Farms and cartons of lion’s mane mushrooms from Care2Grow filling the shelves. Jess understands the power of shopping local: Opting for those over national producers gets you a fresher item, reduces your carbon footprint and stimulates the local economy. “I think people are really disconnected from where their food comes from because we’re so little involved in agriculture—most of us,” Jess says.

The SWFL Fresh brand launched in March 2020 to narrow the gap. On the website, Jess and the team identify and highlight food and beverages made or grown in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee and Sarasota County. Local producers can apply to be featured and wear the SWFL Fresh logo. The site provides a hub for consumers to identify and locate where to shop regional producers, learn what restaurants are cooking with local ingredients, find local farmers’ markets, and see what foods are currently in season (like guava, grouper and radishes in April). Most recently, SWFL Fresh benefited from a $750,000 USDA grant to expand the effort.

Jess Ryals
Jess Ryals (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Though Jess proudly proclaims that SWFL Fresh is a team effort, the Florida Gulf Coast University grad, who spent much of her youth on Marco Island and graduated from Lely High School, was the original force behind it when she sought a way to connect growers and producers in 2018. “We are part of a global food system. There is absolutely no denying it,” Jess says. “If we can move the needle a little bit and move some of that consumption to here, in our region, that makes a huge impact for people.”

Jess sees the brand becoming something on par with Blue Zones Project, a community designation earned for providing access to healthier choices where people live, work, learn and play. “I feel real honored that I’m able to be an agricultural agent in the county I grew up in and serve the people here,” she says. —Andrew Atkins


Eryk Jadaszewski

Horticulturist and Landscape Designer, Everglades Native Designs

Born on Florida’s east coast, horticulturist Eryk Jadaszewski has watched the state’s landscape transform. “This doesn’t look anything like Florida to me,” Eryk says. “This looks like Australia or Brazil because most of the plants brought here are foreign.” Where he could once drive for miles without spotting another car, he now sees bustling roads, condos, chain restaurants and big-box department stores. He doesn’t recognize his hometown.

The sentiment rings true for many Floridians who have seen their favorite landscapes flattened by development. Eryk relishes his new neighborhood, within one of Naples’ last frontiers: Golden Gate Estates. There, towering slash pines and untrimmed sabal palms paint a picture of the Florida of his youth. On Eryk’s rural 3-acre property, he experiments with growing various local plants and gauging their tolerances to the harsh weather, which can drop from 80 degrees to as low as 40 overnight in the winter. “There’s an ecological reason to plant native: They evolved here, they adapted to here, they thrive here—because they’re from here,” Eryk says. 

Through his landscape firm, Everglades Native Designs, he helps like-minded homeowners rewild their landscapes with species that foster a healthy Florida ecosystem. You might find his team on Marco Island building a front yard habitat for endangered burrowing owls, which are prominent on the island. Taking design cues from the coast, Eryk maps out patches of sand for the tiny birds to dig into and shells for the critters to disperse around their dwellings (the owls are famous for collecting ‘treasures,’ often including garbage). Sabal palms, which can house micro-ecosystems in the spiky boots that shoot up from the trunk, are popular in his designs.

Eryk Jadaszewski
Eryk Jadaszewski (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

The landscape designer occasionally uses nonnative palms that adapt easily to the region. He points out that non-Florida species that are either sterile or won’t overpower the surrounding ecosystem work just fine in the subtropical area. “We have a lot of native species here that are from the Caribbean,” Eryk says. “They came here naturally by bird droppings, storms, tides—and they have thrived here in South Florida for thousands of years.” 

Having run nurseries throughout the state and now sitting on the board of directors for the Florida Association of Native Nurseries (commonly known as FANN), Eryk is a self-proclaimed evangelist for the state’s flora. His love for the subject runs deeper than the roots of a slash pine; he met his now-wife, Polish master horticulturist Beata, at a Florida horticulture conference.

And, he’s become a go-to native landscaping source locally. In January, he and his team volunteered to help the Calusa Garden Club plant heat- and salt-tolerant gumbo limbo trees in Marco’s Leigh Plummer Park. This month, Eryk presents during a two-day seminar at Naples Botanical Garden to teach landscape professionals the importance of planting the right plants to protect the state’s delicate ecosystems. —J.B.


Toni Westland

Supervisory Refuge Ranger, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

In more than 20 years as an education-focused park ranger, Toni Westland has learned one lesson: Hand a kid a pair of binoculars, and they’ll see one bird. Become a part of that kid’s culture, community and life, and you can cultivate a lifelong conservationist.

The center’s education program was slim when Toni started at Sanibel’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in 2002. She came armed with a scholastic background in natural resource management and environmental education, gleaned from her time working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Okeechobee Waterway. “[“Ding” Darling] really let me fly—I got to spread my wings, design my own programs,” Toni says. She first partnered with next-door The Sanibel School to bring students in for interpretive programs before working with homeschoolers, mommy-and-me programs, and, eventually, busloads of Lee County School District students.

When fund shortages and travel time stopped the school district from bussing students in, the refuge’s nonprofit arm stepped up to fill the gap by creating Wildlife on Wheels (WoW), a mobile classroom that promotes bilingual education for Title-1 schools and underserved communities. Each school year, WoW visits about a dozen area schools, reaching upward of 7,000 students and families. The refuge also hosts bicycle giveaways and sports programs, such as Soccer for Success, which incorporates nutrition lessons.

Toni’s intent on getting nature and environmental education into the community. To better reach students in urban schools, she created a position for a community connector, hiring Tice Elementary’s cultural studies teacher, María Santiago, for the Fort Myers neighborhood, which is identified as a food desert. “Many of those students have never seen the Gulf of Mexico, they’ve never been able to come to the refuge because their family doesn’t have the transportation and the funds to come to Sanibel. So we decided to go to them, to take the refuge to them,” Toni says. In exposing the children, “Ding” also reaches their families. “As a mom of two, if I know my daughters are engaged in something, I know I’ll be engaged too,” she says.

Toni Westland
Toni Westland (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

For the past 18 years, “Ding” has awarded grants to local schools, resulting in projects like the recent Pocket Refuges, where 13 Title-1 schools received funds to install pollinator gardens with native plants, bird houses, trails and solar-powered fountains. Students learn about the interconnectedness of bees, butterflies, food and health, and help tend the gardens.

In the greenspaces, Toni and her team teach mindfulness, trash awareness, and the value of conservation and being outdoors. “By the time I’m done, those kids are hanging on me. They know I love them, and they love me,” Toni says. “Back when we first visited them, the kids would go home, and that would be it. We call it ‘catch and release.’ Do you ever see them again? No. What we’re doing now is impacting their lives in a repeatedly consistent way that becomes part of what they believe in.” —Chelle Koster Walton


Jimmy Wheeler

Founder, Everglades Fishing Co.

“I’ve always had a love for the wild,” Jimmy Wheeler says. “The raw wild.”

The captain motors his customized 26-foot Pathfinder boat to the mouth of the Barron River and into Chokoloskee Bay. Civilization disappears in his wake. Seafarers are few this frigid January morning. Jimmy likes the solace. He carries fishing rods and tackle, but he’s not compelled to cast: “I like coming out here and just sitting. I don’t even need to fish anymore. I like to just watch nature.”

The 38-year-old is the founder of Everglades Fishing Co. in Everglades City, which his family has called home since the 1920s. Jimmy started as a fishing guide and then, compelled to do something bigger, developed a line of outdoor gear. It began with a deck boot, born out of his frustration with existing products that didn’t hold up to a fisherman’s grueling routine. This morning, Jimmy is attired in his merch—a rugged jacket, a baseball cap. The boat is EFC branded. So is the cooler of beer. Jimmy’s Gator Bait IPA, Everglades Ale, Airboat Amber and Skunk Ape Lager are brewed at Everglades Ale Company, a subsidiary of Bone Hook Brewery, and distributed at 60 locations between St. Petersburg and Key West. A portion of their sales benefits the Everglades Foundation and its restoration efforts. 

Yes, Jimmy’s building a business. But that’s tangential to a bigger goal. He is growing the visibility, voice and recognition he needs to advance his community and protect its surrounding ecosystem. “We’re trying to bring as many eyes as we can to the Everglades,” he says. “Nobody knows about this place, and we’re just 45 minutes away from Naples and an hour from Miami.” 

Jimmy Wheeler
Jimmy Wheeler (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

He admits that not everyone loves his marketing efforts, concerned about increasing tourism in an already strained ecosystem. But he argues that if people aren’t aware of the Everglades, its fragility and the harm we’ve caused, they will not likely fight for restoration and protection. “Change would never happen,” he says. 

On his boat, Jimmy notes changes to the waters he’s navigated since boyhood: the loss of seagrass, the absence of once-ubiquitous mullet, the inland spread of mangroves into former marsh and grassland. He shares his observations with conservation organizations and pushes policymakers to strike a balance between the needs of nature and those of people who make their living in the outdoors. 

And people are top priority for Jimmy as he builds EFC. During his childhood, Jimmy’s mom whisked him to Naples to broaden his perspectives (though she ensured he maintained close ties to his hometown and family). He came home for good eight years ago after a successful but not-quite-fulfilling stint in the corporate world. Now the father of two girls, ages 5 and 1, Jimmy is focused on growing the horizons of the area’s youth. He hopes EFC shows Everglades City’s young people that small-town upbringings need not equate to small dreams. “If I can get as far as I can get and shine the light so someone else can get a little farther, that’s my duty,” Jimmy says. He intends to start manufacturing some of his products here, introducing new jobs and spurring economic growth. “I want these kids to have opportunities.” —Jennifer Reed


Nathalie White

Co-founder, Rebuild SWFL

It’s mid-January, and Rebuild SWFL co-founder Nathalie White is finally taking a break. The mom-of-two spent her weekends—while working Monday through Friday as a project manager at Estero’s SchenkelShultz Architecture—in the thick of Hurricane Ian’s aftermath, wrangling thousands of volunteers to remove debris from storm-torn homes. “I didn’t even have time to buy Christmas presents for my kids,” she says.

A Florida native and University of Florida grad who lived through Hurricane Andrew and has worked for architecture firms throughout the state, Nathalie is no stranger to the building codes and preventative measures against catastrophic storms. But, she wasn’t prepared for the lack of boots on the ground in the days that followed the storm. “We design, we prevent—but seeing it actually flooded is different.”

The weekend after the storm, as the internet returned to her Bonita Springs home, Nathalie scoured social media and added her phone number to a post for a cleanup effort. She missed the first meeting but promised to join the next one in a group chat of random, unsaved numbers. She returned to work on Monday to hear that her client, Estero’s fire chief Scott Vanderbrook (Nathalie’s working on the new Station No. 45) and nine firefighters had lost everything. “Instead of being distraught, I was like, ‘We need to do something about it, and we need to do it now,’” she says.

That day, she texted the strangers in her new group chat, all of whom, she learned, were FGCU students: Catherine Cortes, Bradley Cook, Taylor Eisenhuth and Hannah Frazier. Appointed as the group’s organizer, Nathalie created an Instagram account, posted three meet-up sites and times for locals to pitch in, and racked up 400 followers within the first day (now up to more than 5,000). Many early volunteers were local students who saw the online posts. People also came from around the world to help restore their favorite vacation destination.

Nathalie White
Nathalie White (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Though the areas they tackle are often in shambles, a Rebuild SWFL site emanates hope. Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds team up to lift heavy appliances, pull furnishings from tangled mangroves and pile debris for pickup. Chefs often stop by with food, and neighbors bring out water for the team.

Since their first cleanup on October 4, the group has organized thousands of volunteers to clear out more than 500 homes in 80-plus areas throughout Collier and Lee County—mostly elderly communities in Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach. And they don’t plan on stopping. SchenkelShultz allotted Nathalie 20 hours a week to dedicate to the effort.

She’s also preparing for the next step: rebuilding stronger. Nathalie plans to work with homeowners to assess damage and pull the necessary permits to build back—or, in some cases, start new. She’s also working on a social media campaign to gather sketches for locals’ visions to rebuild: “We have an opportunity, like never before, to rebuild stronger and more sustainable. It’s our focus to have a voice in the future of Southwest Florida, to create the kind of community we want to live in,” she says.

One homeowner they helped in Fort Myers’ San Carlos Park left an emotional voicemail that moved Nathalie to tears: “I don’t feel good asking this question,” he says. “But I’ve probably got about a half-dozen people asking if there’s any chance that you and some of your folks might come back. If it’s a ‘no,’ and everyone’s worn out, I understand.” Nathalie’s response: “Send me more houses. I can have 50 people out there by tomorrow.” —J.B.


Anna Erickson

Fourth-generation Shrimper, Erickson & Jensen Shrimp

Anna Erickson used to tell her dad—Grant, the third-generation owner of Erickson & Jensen Shrimp—that she was too sick to go to school. Instead, she’d ask: “Can I go to the shrimp docks?”

Now 36, Anna embodies and champions the local shrimping industry as she prepares to one day take the helm of the family business, which has been at the heart of the industry since the dawn of commercial shrimping in Southwest Florida in the 1950s. The job is strenuous enough on a typical day: Managing an eight-man crew to unload bags of pink shrimp, stacking and wrapping one-ton pallets of the shellfish while determining their quality, and coordinating with retailers and wholesalers.

Lee County has long been a leader in pink shrimp harvesting, and over the last decade, Anna has proved instrumental in maintaining that. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data from 2011-2021 report Lee County represented 48 percent of total pink shrimp landings in the state—more than any other county. NOAA Fisheries report that the shrimp are sustainably managed and responsibly harvested.

Things took a turn when Hurricane Ian barreled into Lee County with 150 mph winds and lethal 15-foot storm surges, threatening livelihoods (and lives) of hundreds of dock workers and shrimpers. As the storm approached, Anna and her crew prepared the docks, unloading two tractor-trailers worth of shrimp and stockpiling funds to get them rolling after the worst of it had passed. She spent hours on the phone, offering insight and comfort where she could, experiencing what she described as a 24-hour panic attack. “These are people I’ve known my whole life,” Anna says. “To wake up the next day and know that everybody survived and know everybody was safe was unbelievable. And I knew right then and there that I would never give up on my people, and I would never give up on my heritage.”

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Her fleet of 11 boats wasn’t so lucky. Still in the water immediately after the hurricane: Malolo, named for her family’s first boat to arrive in Southwest Florida; Babe, named for her great-grandmother’s nickname, and her eponymous craft, Anna. In the months after the hurricane, Anna estimated the total number of shrimping boats in Fort Myers Beach waters at around 10, down from more than 40. Anna’s business went from employing at least 200 people to about 30. “Those people are not giving up,” Anna says. And neither is she; her work has only increased.

Aside from managing the repairs of five damaged boats and assessing the potential loss of three more in various states of catastrophe (split in half; sunk; bow smashed in), Anna is working with a network of out-of-state shrimpers who agree to do business with her while she balances assessing the mental and physical health of those she’s known all her life. She’s always done that, she says, but more so now than ever.  “We’re going to work with what we have and we’re going to move forward,” Anna says. —A.A.  


Photographed at The Rod & Gun Club in Everglades City

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