SANTA CRUZ — Rachel Kippen will take over the helm of O’Neill Sea Odyssey in March when founding director Dan Haifley retires, the organization announced Tuesday.

Kippen, who has served as the City of Watsonville’s environmental projects coordinator for the past two years, will leave her post today and begin work as O’Neill Sea Odyssey’s assistant executive director on Tuesday. Haifley, who has served as executive director since the organization’s founding in 1996, will retire on March 20, and Kippen will assume leadership.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “I’ve been a friend of Dan Haifley, a friend of the organization and several of the staff for years now. The organization is doing incredible work. It’s serving a need that needs to be filled here.”

Before she worked for the City of Watsonville, Kippen served as director of programs at Save Our Shores, an ocean advocacy organization.

“There’s a lot of synergy between the organizations,” she said. “I feel really lucky to get to work with the people again.”

O’Neill Sea Odyssey was founded in 1996 by wetsuit innovator Jack O’Neill and his son Tim. A living classroom was created on board a 65-foot catamaran sailing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, giving fourth through sixth grade students from schools throughout Central California hands-on lessons about the marine habitat.

It recently reached a milestone of 100,000 students served since its inception.

“Rachel Kippen has worked closely with O’Neill Sea Odyssey’s team since 2012, and she’s a perfect fit to lead our organization,” Haifley said. “She’s an environmental educator and ocean advocate who possesses a wonderfully collaborative style of leadership, and I am so pleased that our board of directors has selected her. With Rachel Kippen at the helm, our future is bright.”

Kippen holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a certificate in strategic leadership and nonprofit management from San Francisco State University, and has focused her graduate research in environmental justice education through arts-based curriculum, primarily in agricultural and immigrant communities.

With many students in the area having never been on the sea, despite living minutes away from it, Kippen said she wants to help the organization reach more of those youth.

“They are really good at inclusivity and diversity, but there is always room for growth,” she said. “I want to make sure we are providing the programs to students that need it and who otherwise wouldn’t get to have it.”

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