Spending every day on the soothing turquoise waters of the Florida Keys and exploring the surrounding natural environment sounds like a dream job. For Sarah Sullivan, that dream has become a reality.
Born and raised in Vermont, Sullivan spent her college years working at a ski shop and competing on the freestyle snowboard team for University of Vermont. Then the international business major decided to take a break from her studies and move to Mexico to become a snorkel guide.
"It was being a snorkel guide that really inspired me to change my life," said Sullivan. "I firsthand saw a change in everyone's psyche after snorkeling, and I knew there was something going on there."
After observing these changes, Sullivan returned to school to study eco-psychology and received her Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Vermont.
In 2012 she decided to make the move to the eco-friendly Florida Keys.
"I came down here with a lot of focus and needing more experience," Sullivan said. "I was really ready to change people's lives through eco-therapy."
Of all the island destinations in the world, why did she choose the Florida Keys?
"The Keys are the only place in the United States where you can leave society behind and immerse yourself in the mangroves in a near-shore environment," she explained. "It's a really special ecosystem here. It's really complex, diverse and it's right at our fingertips."
Sullivan started out in the Keys working as a camp guidance counselor for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, teaching them to kayak and fish as a therapeutic technique. After one summer counseling children, she became a rehabilitative mental health counselor at the Guidance/Care-Center of the Middle Keys.
While doing her day job, she also began working alongside Captain Bill Keogh as a kayak guide with Big Pine Kayak Adventures, a leader in the Lower Keys for more than 20 years.
"I'm so grateful for my partnership with Captain Bill," Sullivan said. "I've learned a lot from him over the years and I feel like I am following in his footsteps."
Sullivan's ultimate goal was to start her own eco-therapy practice. With a lot of hard work and dedication, in spring 2014 she launched Serenity Eco Therapy, a progressive paddleboard program that practices mental balance through nature.
Based at picturesque Bahia Honda State Park, the program combines meditation, yoga, Pilates, cardio and paddleboarding to provide participants with a therapeutic water experience.
"The paddleboard becomes a platform for relaxation; it really helps a lot with the burnout people feel of the everyday world," Sullivan said.
Sullivan's experience as an educator has made her a great teacher and facilitator to connect people with nature.
"Most of my clients are beginners who have never gone paddleboarding or done yoga before, and they've fallen in love with the program and find true relaxation," she said.
Sullivan is certified by the World Paddle Association and offers her Bahia Honda classes daily. She attributes her recent successes and ability to do what she loves to her small island community of Big Pine Key in the Lower Keys.
"I wouldn't have been able to do all of this without my community's ongoing support, without the support of Captain Bill and, of course, without the beautiful Florida Keys ecosystem," she said.
Sullivan intends to continue her practice throughout the Keys and has recently begun making plans to open her own Serenity Eco Therapy Adventure Outpost, a place where visitors can come to learn about the program and book trips. In addition, she hopes to expand and work with different causes. This summer she plans to collaborate with local artists and musicians to promote youth paddleboarding.
Coming from a small town, Sullivan (dubbed "Sarah Snorkels" by many locals) calls herself lucky to have found a supportive community that can offer so much encouragement as she pursues her dream.
"Everyone knows me on Big Pine — I feel like everyone's daughter when I go around town," she said. "I feel truly blessed to have been welcomed into everyone's circle and to get all of their ongoing support."
Sullivan is known as "Sarah Snorkels" by many Keys locals.
Sullivan's easygoing spirit helps people connect with nature.
Paddleboard becomes a platform for relaxation; it really helps a lot with the burnout people feel of the everyday world.
Serenity Eco Therapy, a progressive paddleboard program that practices mental balance through nature.