Maine Students Get Water Message Straight From the Fish's Mouth

Maine associations invite Mr. and Mrs. Fish to teach elementary school students that healthy ocean life depends on clean water and good habits in the home.
Maine Students Get Water Message Straight From the Fish's Mouth
From left, Celeste Beaudet and Katy Grondin from the Auburn School Department pose with Matt Timberlake of the Maine Water Environment Association, Jeff Sandler (Mr. Fish), Deb Sandler (Mrs. Fish), and Peter Goodwin, the New England Water Environment Association state director.

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Kids can read textbooks or write papers on the importance of clean water, but it’s tough to get the ideas to sink in. That is, unless they hear it straight from a fish’s mouth.

The fish in this case are international marine and environmental educators Mr. and Mrs. Fish (Jeff and Deb Sandler) of South Portland, Maine. In April 2015, the Maine Water Environment Association and the New England Water Environment Association brought the couple to Fairview Elementary School in Auburn to perform a pair of one-hour-long marine education programs.

Both focused on the delicate balance between life in the ocean and the water people use daily. The performance honored the men and women in the wastewater industry who clean and recycle water. Using humor, colorful costumes and audience interaction, Mr. and Mrs. Fish taught the kids about sea life while reminding them that, thanks to clean water, the ocean remains a wonderful resource.

Why it matters

“It was a terrific opportunity to drive home to those kids what operators do in a treatment plant, and why that’s important,” says Matt Timberlake, second vice president and public relations chairman for MWEA. “They tell what happens to the water once it goes down the drain in their homes. They follow it to the sewer system, the treatment plant, the lake and finally into the ocean. They really drive home the idea that everyone has an impact.”

Mr. and Mrs. Fish, based at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, have performed in 20 countries and more than 30 states over the past three decades. In their Fairview Elementary presentations, they dressed in many costumes while explaining the complex food chain in the ocean and the importance of clean water to the ecosystem.
Jeff Sandler (Mr. Fish) went from playing the part of plant plankton (at the bottom of the food chain), to animal plankton (just a little higher) and eventually all the way to big fish (at the top).

With each step up the food chain, Mr. Fish included visits from Fairview students dressed as clams, mussels, oysters and crabs. All the while, the Sandlers explained the balance between clean water and the environment. “In order to get the children to listen, they made it fun,” says Timberlake. “It’s a very effective method. It engages the kids. They were all glued to what they were learning.”

Although the skits were geared toward the elementary school audience, many of the ideas are universal. According to Timberlake, the Sandlers research and adjust each presentation to focus on a central idea the school or sponsoring group wants to convey.

“I actually learned several new things watching their presentation,” says Timberlake. “It’s kind of funny hearing conservation advice from a guy wearing a clam costume, but they were good life lessons nonetheless.”

Spreading the word

MWEA and its more than 650 members promote professional environmental management practices, including opportunities for wastewater treatment professionals, support for a balanced view toward environmental policy, educational outreach and public awareness programs to enhance the image of wastewater professionals.

“We want everyone aware that clean-water issues are real,” says Timberlake. “Water and wastewater professionals are really the silent heroes in their communities. We want to create awareness of what they do, and also plant the seed that this industry can be a rewarding career choice. People like Mr. and Mrs. Fish certainly help that cause.”

The association sponsors an annual poster contest on the theme, “Why clean water is worth it to ME.” Last year more than 550 students entered, from grades one to 12. MWEA later distributed a 2016 calendar to members featuring the top-12 posters.

Timberlake says that the association is happy to offer advice and guidance to utilities looking to increase community outreach. “We always tell people to ask themselves, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’” says Timberlake. “We are all stakeholders in the clean-water business, so it’s our responsibility to continue to get information out there on what our plants do and to inform people of what’s happening. There’s no one better to share that message than us.”


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