Meet the Van Leers, Miami’s father-son climate change duo

Growing up in Key Biscayne, some of Sam Van Leer’s earliest memories are of exploring the open ocean.

“[I remember] walking through tidal pools with my dad, someone who could tell me what I was seeing. … I feel very fortunate to have been able to learn about the environment with a marine scientist as a guide,” he said. “I’m fortunate that I started out with my eyes open.”

Sam’s father, John Van Leer, is a professor at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. He taught his three children everything he knew about the ocean that surrounded them.

“We traveled a lot together and we did a dozen sailing trips to the Bahamas, and it was nonstop environmental education,” John remembers. “We’d [also] travel across the country and did three transcontinental camping trips. That was an amazing bonding opportunity to see the beautiful environment of our amazing country.”

While John’s two other children moved away and pursued their own careers, Sam stayed in Miami. He founded the Urban Paradise Guild, a nonprofit that organizes volunteer projects in Miami-Dade County eight times per week. All projects fight the causes and effects of sea level rise through native habitat or agriculture. Sam also nurtures students and community leaders in environmental stewardship and policy.

Together, the two have become the local climate change duo — while Sam does a lot more on-the-ground environmental work, like urban gardening and removing invasive plants, with the Urban Paradise Guild, John focuses his energies on policy change.

He’s an active member of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, a national nonpartisan nonprofit focused on building political will for policies that will curb climate change.

And of course, they help and inspire each other in their individual pursuits.

While Sam typically spearheads volunteer projects in places like Matheson Hammock Park, last year he led a campaign to make citizens aware of a Florida Senate bill that would have blocked local governments from being able to ban fracking in their own jurisdictions. The vote failed, which means places like Miami-Dade and Broward can continue to ban fracking.

Meanwhile, John volunteers with the Urban Paradise Guild whenever he can.

‘It comes from within’

Environmental stewardship wasn’t always either the father or son’s full-time gig. John has a bachelors in mechanical engineering and did graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, making guidance systems for wartime missiles. But he grew “disgusted” with working on materials made for war.

“It was during the Cold War when Kennedy was president. I wanted to do something more peaceful than work on this project. Once I came to know it was going to be warhead system I want back to school in oceanography,” he said.

Since then, he’s been “all over the world studying the ocean.”

His most recent work was in the Arctic, where he became aware of the impact of global warming on our glacial ice. “[It’s] the fundamental root of our issues here in South Florida.”

And Sam spent built a career in information management before he burned out and desperately began seeking a more meaningful profession. That was around 2006. While on his search he began kayaking in northern Biscayne Bay, a daily exercise that made him realize caring for the environment he grew up around was his calling.

His effort in 2007 to prevent the privatization of Virginia Key Beach kickstarted this phase of his life.

Sam went on to incorporate the Urban Paradise Guild as a 501c3 and started leading habitat restoration, agriculture and education efforts at various parks and urban areas around the county, including Oleta River State Park, Arch Creek Park, Amelia Earhart Park, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and Matheson Hammock Park.

And he’s always looking for more and more volunteers. He’s currently working on a project called “Seeds for Haiti,” in which he’s sending vegetable seeds to southwest Haiti, where Hurricane Matthew has destroyed most crops. He’s also looking for people to march with him at the People’s Climate March on Saturday.

When asked why he thinks Sam followed so closely in his footsteps John said: “It comes from within … I can suggest or try to impose it but that’s not the same as having the fire ignite within.”

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to include additional information about UPG’s work.