Mary Beth Sutton talks about the 15th anniversary of TenneSEA, and changing its mission.
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TenneSEA Executive Director Mary Beth Sutton removes trash from Chattanooga Creek during a volunteer cleanup event Sunday, February 24, 2019 in St. Elmo, Tennessee. The area is a known dumping ground where household trash, tires, old rugs, televisions and other contaminants can be seen along the roadway and in the creek.

For about five years, students at Red Bank Elementary have used Mountain Creek, flowing at the back of the school's property, for course work.

The creek has been an instrumental part in the children's education, school principal Haley Brown said. There are biology, environmental and some life lessons learned on the banks of the creek once hidden behind a tree line. Teachers have spent summer days in Chacos learning how to incorporate the waterway into lessons, later showing schoolchildren the importance of clean water.

It started when Mary Beth Sutton, executive director of what was then known as CaribbeanSEA and TenneSEA Kids for Clean Water, told school leaders about the creek's importance and how it could be used in the school's curriculum. She saw it as a hands-on resource for students.

She began coordinating volunteer efforts to clear paths, helped in cleanups and supported teachers in developing outdoor education.

"Mary Beth is the reason we even learned we had access to Mountain Creek," Brown said.

"Our partnership has really been an incredible thing for our kids and for our school," she added. "I think we owe a lot of where we're headed as a school to the work we've done with her."

The project is an example of some of the local work the nonprofit organization has been doing, but it's also why the organization is changing its name.

For its first 14 years, it was known as Caribbean Student Environmental Alliance. Now in its 15th year, as its board and three employees push to more accurately reflect their work that reaches far beyond the Caribbean into Southeast Tennessee, it will be called WaterWays.

The organization was founded in 2004 and originally worked exclusively in the Caribbean. It started by educating local families about bacteria. Many of the residents swam, washed, drank and fed cattle in the same, dirty waterways.

Those efforts led to the group helping residents take steps to protect their water in eight countries around the Caribbean. They constructed wetlands for sewage and restored stream banks after hurricanes. The group also taught fishermen that coral reefs were alive and different from rocks.

But the organization also helped Southeast Tennessee.

A friend of Sutton's reminded her water issues could be found locally — plastic pollution was becoming a problem and residents needed more access to clean water. The organization launched its Tennessee chapter and began pushing for clean water in the Chattanooga area.

Both TenneSEA and CaribbeanSEA were founded by Sutton to educate children about the importance of clean water.

To raise money for the efforts, the group's store, The Gear Closet, opened in 2012 to sell used outdoors gear from its Riverside Drive offices. The group has worked with locals to teach the importance of water quality, gotten grants to work with local school, led cleanup efforts at area creeks and helped businesses conduct more environmentally sound practices.

"Our mission has expanded some; it's always been about kids and communities taking care of their watersheds, but we're doing restoration and working closely with partners all through the watersheds," Sutton said. "Having it just be 'Student Environmental Alliance' didn't really communicate what we're all about."

The company's mission and work to empower kids and communities to protect and restore their waterways isn't changing. However, the company will get a new identity under the WaterWays name with a new slogan, "Clean Water, Healthy Communities," to emphasize that communities depend on clean water and that the organization aims to reconnect people to those waterways.

The name emphasizes the nonprofit's work to focus on water through watershed education, water supply and the impacts of climate change, according to Sutton.

The changes include the new name, slogan and logo that better align with the message and focus of the organization, according to board member Jenny Miller Garmendia.

"The name is an important change as it better reflects what the organization is trying to do," she said. "We have projects not just in Caribbean, but in Tennessee and growing. It bodes well for our growth and where we're going."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.