When it comes to her earliest ocean memories while growing up in the Philippines, Ocean Bridge alum Aira Sarmiento recalls being thrown into the deep end – quite literally.
“When I was around three years old, my parents would take me to the ocean. My mom would be at one end, and my dad would just throw me in the water,” remembers Aira with a laugh. “They’d get me to swim back and forth and each time they’d take a step backwards.
“And it worked, you know. I got more comfortable learning how to swim. It was one of my favourite things to do.”
Aira and her family moved to Canada when she was a teenager, where they eventually set up in the small, historic town of Smiths Falls, Ontario, about a 45-minute drive from Ottawa. Her connection to the ocean and waterways stayed with her – but she says she felt there was something missing.
That’s part of the reason why she applied to the Ocean Bridge program, which she joined as one of 40 young Canadians as part of the 2019 cohort.
As part of her local service, Aira connected with local organizations to plan and deliver beeswax workshops and rain barrel presentations for the public. And that was more than enough to open some eyes.
Experience pays off
Since graduating from Ocean Bridge in early 2020, Aira has gone from volunteer to paid employee with the Rideau Environmental Action League (REAL). She’s helped with REAL’s Monarch Garden 30th anniversary project and community gardens, but has just recently been given roles such as helping promote the organization to wider audience, assisting in running a fundraising auction and managing its Instagram account.
“I think that's why they kind of trust me in handling promotion. Last year they didn't expect there'd be a lot of people interested in the workshop, but there were, which meant that what I was doing was effective,” she explains.
Aira is the kind of person who may seem quiet and even reserved at first – until you start talking to her. Then the depth of her passion, kindness and desire to make a difference shine through.
Though she’s always been personable, she says her experience with Ocean Bridge – particularly the two learning journeys where she met with her 39 fellow ambassadors on the North Shore of Lake Superior (June 2019) and again in Ottawa (January 2020) – helped her discover a newfound confidence and perspective.
“I was definitely able to grow a lot from Ocean Bridge, things like assertiveness and not being afraid to kind of like speak up about certain issues,” explains Aira.
“And also just knowing that there's like people out there across Canada trying to do all these important things for oceans and waterways. I live in a small town, and I didn’t really have many friends or contacts that are into just trying to make this kind of difference. It’s made me motivated to just try as best as I can.”
She’s adds she’s excited to see the Ocean Bridge program grow to 160 participants in 2020 and to follow their journeys, just as she learned so much from her fellow ambassadors a year ago.
“It kind of gave me a new pair of glasses, a new perspective. They're basically my role models, to be honest, because it just opened up a new way of seeing the world.”
Aira Sarmiento is an Ocean Bridge alum who splits her time between Smiths Falls, Ont. and Ottawa. Ocean Bridge brings together 180 young Canadians aged 18-30 to form five national cohorts – Pacific, Great Lakes, St. Lawrence, Atlantic and Direct Action. Each are composed of youth with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, but who are all passionate about making a difference in their communities through the lens of ocean and waterway conservation. These Ocean Bridge Ambassadors from across Canada work together, receive funding and learn from experts in marine conservation and education through an online platform and in-person learning journeys to deliver service projects related to ocean health and ocean literacy in communities across the country. Ocean Bridge is an Ocean Wise initiative funded by the Canada Service Corps through the Government of Canada.