Like a lot of residents in her City Heights neighborhood, Blanca Banks has come to view the Ocean Discovery Institute’s state-of-the-art Living Lab as a nearly indispensable part of life during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have four children and we have been there picking up meals just about every day and picking up science packets and other educational activities every week,” Banks said. “It’s really been amazing.”

The services she and her neighbors have come to rely on are being made possible with the support of The San Diego Foundation-managed San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund, which has granted $12 million to more than 130 local nonprofits working on the frontline of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. The $100,000 grant has allowed Ocean Discovery Institute to pivot its services during the pandemic.

“There could be nothing more needed at this time,” said Executive Director Shara Fisler. “It really served our ability to provide support during this crisis.”

Ocean Discovery Institute is a STEM-focused nonprofit empowering young people from underserved communities to transform their lives, neighborhoods, and world as scientific and environmental leaders. Its Living Lab, nestled in Manzanita Canyon, opened in the fall of 2018 and reached more than 6,000 young people in its first year through classroom and out-of-school programming.

In-school programs engage K-8th grade students in hands-on science and conserve experiences and provides professional development and resources for classroom teachers. Out-of-school programs are provided through multi-week, STEM camps and academic support services for elementary and middle school students, as well as intensive leadership programming for high school and college students on a path to careers in the sciences. 

With the 12,000-square-foot Living Lab shuttered during the pandemic, the Ocean Discovery Institute quickly shifted gears.

Its staff and volunteers are distributing hundreds of STEM-to-Go Science Education packets to students in the community; they are busy producing educational YouTube videos to support students academically; they remain in constant communication with students through texting, social media, and phone calls; and they are distributing 450 meals daily – and two meals on Friday – in conjunction with Feeding San Diego – another COVID-19 Community Response Fund recipient.

“If it weren’t for Ocean Discovery Institute, families wouldn’t have the food and technology they need,” said Nalleli Arriaga, an Ocean Discovery Institute alumna who is now an event and volunteer coordinator. “I’m thankful for the existing relationships we have with these families that allow us to build critical connections during this crisis.”

Fisler said the transition was a team effort.

“When the pandemic hit, it was clear we had to shut down operations but we also knew we had to continue to serve our community, especially because they would be feeling the effects of the pandemic so acutely. I’m proud of how swiftly we’ve been able to transition from doing what we normally do – providing science experiences, mentoring, and the tools for success – to still doing that but looking very different.”

Banks, the mother of four children, said she remains grateful for all the Ocean Discovery Institute does.

“Every time you go there, you get a good dose of education, you’re always learning,” Banks said. “They are an invaluable resource for the community and they provide experiences that I never had when I was a kid.”

The giving underscores how U.S. community foundations are moving decisively to help those in need during the COVID-19 crisis. According to a recent survey by the Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative, donor-advised funds at 64 U.S. community foundations granted $821.9 million to nonprofits in March and April, an increase of $302.5 million compared to the same period a year ago.

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