Broken bits of debris floated through the flooded streets. Houses, once tall, fell in shambles amongst the piles of wreckage. Towns were torn down and washed away. People, weathered and shattered, searched for families, friends and any lost pieces of the lives they had before the tsunami.
It was 2004 in Thailand and one of the world’s largest earthquakes had just caused an unimaginably devastating wave; a tsunami that destroyed much of Thailand and many of the lives residing in it.
Kathy Kirbo, executive director of the Reef Ball Foundation, stood amongst the broken pieces of a once beautiful place and knew she was there to make a difference. She was there to begin construction efforts, starting by planting a ‘reef ball’ in the ocean, in an attempt to repair the damage to the marine environment. By planting a reef ball, marine life would have a new home to grow in, a new chance to start over.
“The project in Thailand was a very emotional trip, but being there so quickly after the tsunami seemed to be so beneficial to the locals,” Kirbo said. “They wanted to be doing something constructive, and they needed the support of the project and the support of a friend.”
While her current success seems to have come quickly, Kirbo’s journey with the Reef Ball Foundation and making a global impact started a long time ago.
Kirbo grew up on a farm in rural Georgia. Her parents instilled in her a love for the land and conservation from a young age. During childhood, Kirbo and her family traveled to the Caribbean on diving and snorkeling excursions, vacationing in the Virgin Islands, St. Croix on Buck Island, and Jamaica. Kirbo was SCUBA-certified by the time she was 12 and enjoyed watching the oceanic endeavors of marine explorer, Jacques Cousteau, which she says were the reasons behind her sparked passion for the ocean.
Following in her parents’ footsteps, Kirbo attended the University of Georgia in 1983 for psychology and “the killer music scene”, but quickly enrolled in a SCUBA class where she met Todd Barber, current chairman and CEO of the Reef Ball Foundation.
Barber, an avid diver himself, admittedly came up with the original idea for the Reef Ball Foundation with his father after their favorite diving spot, a reef in the Cayman Islands, was destroyed. Barber invited Kirbo to be a part of the new organization a few years after they had graduated from UGA. It was 1992, and just four years later, the Reef Ball Foundation was officially founded.
The Reef Ball Foundation is a non-profit organization that prides itself on the restoration and conservation of oceanic ecosystems. The foundation does this by implanting an environmentally friendly orb made of concrete and limestone, a ‘reef ball’, in an existing damaged or destroyed coral reef. Once planted, the reef ball uses bio-mimicry techniques to act as a centralized natural habit for organisms to relocate in and regrow around. While their first reef ball was placed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the foundation is now recognized worldwide with the construction and deployment of over 600,000 reef balls in over 4,000 projects, according to their website.
In 2012, the Reef Ball Foundation was awarded the National Environmental Protection Prize by the Classy Awards, which is equivalent to the Academy Awards of philanthropic organizations.
“The work they’ve done in the world of marine conservation is truly inspiring, and we are honored and humbled to celebrate their dynamic achievements with this award,” said Scot Chisholm, CEO of StayClassy.
While all of the reef balls are constructed at a plant in Sarasota, Florida, Kirbo heads the organizational and outreach side here in the land-locked town of Athens, Georgia.
“I’ve gotten to travel the world and meet so many people,” Kirbo said. “They are the ones who make the real difference, especially the kids.”
Kirbo has traveled and headed projects across the world. One of her most meaningful trips was in a small fishing called Jambiani in Zanzibar, Tanzania. While there, Kirbo worked closely with locals and fishermen along the coast and taught conservation techniques to children in the local school.
“In these remote areas you really feel like you’re making a direct impact on their livelihood and future,” Kirbo said.
Working strictly with reef balls is not the only way Kirbo contributes to the foundation’s conservation efforts. From working in Kenya for the Women of the Maasai Empowerment Project to oyster restoration projects in Chesapeake Bay, Kirbo continues to challenge herself to make a truly global impact.
“Watching Kathy grow, with the Reef Ball Foundation and as a person, has been truly an honor,” Barber said. “She is influential, inspiring, and we could not have accomplished half of what we’ve done without her.”