The Spoonbill Scoop
Special Edition 
Newsletter 2013 
It's the C-Word, and We Don't Mean Christmas... 
By Marlowe Moore Fairbanks

I'm a writer and naturalist who used to give tours in the Everglades, so when I knew I was relocating to Tampa, I found Nature's Academy and contacted Dana about a possible job. I wanted to continue to teach ecology. I had no idea that my path and Dana's were to cross for a very, very different reason.

Dana and I met on October 22nd, on a sunny morning at Fort De Soto, where two classes from Madeira Beach Elementary buzzed around the tubs of water shoes, preparing for a day of dip netting, guided nature walks, and hands-on experience using scientific instruments to collect data. I'd spotted her in the lineup of adults: a tall, bright presence with her big smile and California-girl blonde hair. If you've ever met Dana, you know that she stands out. It's her radiance, her energy. The last aspect of Dana Pounds that caught my attention was her almost-full metal prosthesis where her right leg should have been.

"Let's walk," she said to me, pointing to the sandy path leading to the shoreline of North Beach where the classes use hand-held nets to collect marine life in the sea grass beds. We left the giddy commotion of fifth graders and retreated to the beach. "I want you to tell our story," she said. "There has to be something good to come out of it."

She told me a little bit that morning, and I was hooked. I agreed to tell the tale and returned three times to interview Dana about her life, her family's battle with cancer, the creation of Nature's Academy, and her unwavering belief that a positive attitude can, in fact, change the world. It has certainly changed Dana's world, and, now, the worlds of tens of thousands of students from counties across the nation.
Dana with students at Fort De Soto Park.

"There has to be a way that my cancer can be used for good," she told me. "If people really knew what was happening, maybe they would help us fund our Science Literacy Project and reach our target of 1,500 students this school year. We've supported just over 1,000 students annually for the past three years and I would like nothing more than to surpass that number in 2014. We feel like people know what a difference a trip with us makes for kids in all schools, but especially in schools that can't afford to send entire classes on field trips."

On October 23rd, the morning after my first meeting with Dana, she scheduled an MRI at her orthopedic clinic for what she thought might be an injured hamstring. It wasn't. It was a tumor. Her cancer had returned. A few weeks later, she and Jim left town for a six-week odyssey that took them to treatment centers in Texas, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

When she returned, her life had changed. She had changed although the sunny spirit, the fighting hope, remained as alive as ever. "I want everyone to know who we really are, why we fight for life, for science literacy and the environment," she said. "If I had one holiday wish, it wouldn't be a cure for cancer. My job is to support the cure for science literacy and to foster a love of the environment through education. Nature's Academy can do it. But we can't do it without support, and I feel like it's time for us to surrender our brave face and let everyone know the real story." So, here's the story. Well, at least part of it. We'd need a book if you ever wanted to hear the whole thing.

Naturally, Dana was born a Pisces, raised on the Jersey shore where she spent her summers submerged in her true home - the sea. To lure her inside, Dana's mother stood on their small pier dripping mint chocolate chip ice cream onto the surface of the water.

Dana's inquisitive nature earned her the nickname "Buggy" because she was always bugging people for answers, and her first idol was her older brother, a budding scientist, who taught her the wonders of exploring the tide pools, jetties, and marshes around their Jersey home. She went to excellent schools and knew early on that she, too, was a scientist at heart.

For high school, Dana's father gave her the opportunity to attend Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Connecticut, where she played field hockey and, her senior year, participated in the Young Science Scholars Program. Her research project tested and identified three strains of bacteria that would "eat" petroleum; the implications being that bacteria could be used to clean up oil spills. At 18, Buggy was on the cutting edge of "bioremediation" research, even though she didn't know it then.

However, the pivotal moment of her career came three years later in college when she embarked on a semester abroad in Australia with the School for International Training. "It was akin to Nature's Academy," Dana said. The program took students to diverse ecosystems and gave them life-altering interactions with the natural world. For her independent study, she identified the impacts of fish feeding on the local fish community structure at Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef. This crash course in experiential learning ignited her passion for environmental studies.

But, the pieces had yet to come together. Dana's father encouraged her to become a lawyer, but instead of clerking for her internship, she followed her heart and volunteered on a Vermont family dairy farm, pursuing her passion for environmental education and conservation science. So she moved onto the farm for a four week internship, and her following paper, "The Loss of the Family Farm," introduced an idea that would set the course of Dana's life purpose: to supplement schools with environmental education and create a cross-curriculum that would integrate science and the environment into writing and other disciplines. The dream for Nature's Academy had been born. Yet, Dana's carefree life, as she knew it, was about to end.

"I don't even care that I have cancer, being out here."

Dana and I were parked at the end East Beach at Fort De Soto for our second interview. It was early November, a few days before she and Jim left for their whirlwind cancer tour, and Tampa Bay was quiet as glass. Tiny cars motored up and over the Skyway Bridge as snowy egrets and great herons landed in the shallows near the curve of mangroves. A single white pelican arrived, paddling across the water. For us both, it was the first white pelican sighting of the seasonal migration.

She removed a small, hard cover notebook from her bag. It was her journal from Australia and Vermont, and she read an entry to me, dated January 31, 1995. She wrote it the morning after she decided to take the month long internship on the farm.

"I saw this as an opportunity. I wanted to be connected to Nature, to help people connect. I had learned from living in Middlebury [VT] and I wanted to give back, to perpetuate the notion of community reciprocity and involvement which I believe is integral to sustainability and longevity."

While we talked, a Gulf Fritillary butterfly darted between us then staggered to the mangrove canopy, a bright blur of orange against the cloud of green. "That's my mom," Dana said, closing the book. We watched the butterfly. I didn't know what she meant. She had removed her prosthetic leg and leaned it against the side of the minivan.

Dana was 26 when her battle with cancer began. "I got the diagnosis June 25, 1999."

A pea-sized lump formed in her right leg. Later, doctors determined it was a desmoid tumor, a very rare form of cancer. They removed the lump, but more lumps formed after every surgery, so in 2001, she started aggressive chemotherapy.

The wounds from the surgery refused to heal, and Dana refused to stop living her life. She traveled to the Galapagos while attending graduate school in Fort Lauderdale for her MS in Marine Biology. She continued to work full time and live in the Florida Keys, all the while enduring the rigors of cancer treatments.

Yet, slowly, Dana's injuries and treatments deteriorated her ability to do what she loved. She lost the ability to be in water, she lost her ability to exercise. But she never lost her spirit.
In 2004, she met Jim Pounds, and two weeks later began massive chemotherapy-again. The fight was on to save her leg, and it lasted for the next four years.

All this time, Dana's key advocates were Jim and her family. Locally, Jim and her mother formed her primary care team - she called them the "three musketeers." The three of them weathered the rough seas of chemotherapy, cancer, and Jim and Dana's ever-nagging need to start an educational program of their own. By 2007, Jim and Dana had moved to Tampa to be close to Moffitt Cancer Center, and the outlook for Dana's leg was grim. However, in the fall of 2007, Dana and Jim held their first outdoor classroom with a new nonprofit they'd named Nature's Academy.

"It was probably one of the largest blind leaps of faith I have ever taken. I had Jim and my family encouraging me though - and with them at my side, I knew I couldn't fail. So off we went. As we have said all along - if this is meant to be - it will fly!"

Nature's Academy was meant to be, and so were Jim and Dana.
The following year they became engaged and focused their new life together on building Nature's Academy into their
Dana with husband, Jim Pounds,
on their wedding day.

By now, it was summer 2008, and Dana and Jim were losing the fight to save her leg. One afternoon, Dana called her mother, who lived in Naples, and left a message. When she didn't return Dana's call, Dana got worried, drove to Naples and found her mother collapsed in her home. They rushed her to the hospital, and after a series of tests, the doctors discovered that Dana's mom had Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Six weeks later, an electrical fire started in the wiring of Dana and Jim's house, burning half of it to the ground.

"If I hadn't had Nature's Academy and the work that I love to do, if I hadn't had those kids' smiles, I don't know if I could have made it. It literally saved me during that time."

Dana and Jim temporarily moved into a hotel with Dana's mother, who was losing her own battle with cancer. To share time together, Dana and her mother looked through the few boxes of belongings Jim and Dana's brother salvaged from the fire. Inside of one, Dana found her old journal. She had forgotten about it. Randomly, she turned to the entry from March 12, 1994, and read, in her 21-year-old handwriting, about her dream to start her own science education organization. "I decided yesterday that I think I am going into education. I want to do so much for the environment, but what good would all of my research [as a scientist] do if it wasn't coupled with my enthusiasm? If any research is published, it is easily ignored by politicians. I'm not much of an activist, so politics and law are out. But I want to make a difference. The way I see to change a politician's mind is to change their attitude toward the environment. And the only way to do that is to educate them. So I think education is the answer! I'm not sure exactly how and where, but I think that's how I'll get my message out."

The last photo taken with her mom, Carolyn Cushman. 

Dana fulfilled her prophecy, and through a devastating series of tragedies, the journal had returned to her, to prove it. A few months later, Dana's mother passed, and shortly after that, Dana surrendered her own fight and underwent surgery to amputate her leg.

The day her mother died, butterflies feeding on nectar in the garden flew in through the open windows and landed on her body while Dana and her family waited for the paramedics to arrive. They flew in and out of the house, many of which lingered on the body as the paramedics loaded it into the ambulance. "I've never seen anything like it," Dana said. "It was beautiful."

For the last interview, I met Dana at her office in Bradenton, just a few days ago. She looked tired but happy, three stacks of thank you letters and drawings from school children who participated in the Science Literacy Project lined up on her conference table.

"After all of the trauma the only thing that made sense was Nature's Academy. Seeing those kids' faces light up was all that I ever needed to keep going. You see the [thank you] letters. The inspiration is endless, and I truly believe I can survive cancer to fulfill my purpose - which is of course being a wonderful partner to my husband - but also to enhance science literacy and foster environmental stewardship," she said of the last five years.
Since 2007, Nature's Academy has served over 30,000 students and removed over 4,000 lbs of litter from local shorelines. Additionally, 80% of Science Literacy Project students have demonstrated learning gains directly correlated with their Nature's Academy field trip.  "We keep going because something as simple as $25 can help pay for one 5th grader to come out on our field trip. The next chapter is to see a higher awareness of the Science Literacy Project. That's what I would like to see happen. We need the community support to take our mission to the next level, to make it a permanent fixture for the kids."
With the return of the cancer, Dana elected to enroll herself in a clinical trial conducted by the National Cancer Institute of a new drug therapy specific to desmoid tumors. As far as she knows, it is the first trial of its kind, and every three weeks, she and Jim will return to NCI in Maryland to monitor her progress. Now, Dana herself is the science experiment.
Dana undergoing her first round of treatment at the National Cancer Institute.

"We have to look for the positive. How can this help? What can we do? I keep fighting because I believe in science and nature, I believe that we are all a part of something greater, and Nature's Academy is my something greater than me. I believe in the gift of education to change somebody's life, to be the thing that puts them on their life's path. We've kept up such a barrier between our professional life and what was really going on, but Nature's Academy and my story are all the same story. It's about never giving up on what you believe in. It's about always finding the positive, no matter what things look like at the time. It's about letting people help."

 I left Dana's office and drove back to Tampa in time to get caught on the bridge between the sunset and moonrise. Snowies and herons glided overhead, and the dark rainbow of dusk settled across the sky. I'm sure, if I looked hard enough, somewhere there was a butterfly. I'd promised Dana I'd write the story, and that was partially a lie.  I told what I could, then realized this story doesn't have an ending. It goes on. And for that, I am grateful.                      
The Story is Not Over...

Please help us raise awareness for Dana's efforts throughout her community and beyond by sharing her story! 
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Why not help continue Dana's mission toward enhancing science and environmental literacy?

Any extra holiday shopping money can help support free field trip programs for public schools. For a small donation of just $25, you can assist one fifth grade student receive an invaluable and memorable education experience. Your gift will truly pay it forward, as each sponsored student gains new knowledge and inspiration to achieve their dreams, no matter the obstacles. In turn, they will serve as an environmental ambassador for their school and community, teaching others the meaning of stewardship.

Please contact us or visit our website for more information, or donate today!

Nature's Academy Thanks Our Supporters!
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Pinellas COunty School District

In Kind Memory of 

Bernadette Denton

Mother of Francine Campogni, 
who is a teacher at 
Walsingham Elementary School


The Nature's Academy Flock


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