DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum combines eco-tourism and service

Endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica can thank America’s bad economy for more miles of clean beach upon which to lay their eggs.

When Bill Valaika (MS real estate and construction management ’03) saw his job prospects in real estate dwindling, he launched the nonprofit Habitat Healers to organize clean-up and recycling trips to beaches around the world in an effort to help save endangered species, particularly sea turtles. He founded the Denver-based group in August 2009 after returning from a volunteer trip he took with environmental organization Global Vision International (GVI) earlier that summer.

“Turtles, when they’re born, they always remember that spot,” says photographer Michael Albert, who joined the Habitat Healers for its first trip in early November. “They go out in the ocean, but they always come back to lay their eggs when they mature. So when there’s too much rubbish on the beach, they’ll come up, check it out and decide against laying their eggs there. They’ll go back into the ocean and expel their eggs in the ocean and the eggs die.”

On its maiden expedition, Habitat Healers took eight people to Tortuguero Beach in Costa Rica, where they partnered with GVI to clean 1.5 miles of beach in two days, removing more than 5,000 pounds of trash and taking it by boat to the closest recycling center. The group also set up a recycling program for the nearby village of San Francisco. Children from the village school helped clean the beach, learned about recycling and got the chance to play barefoot soccer with some Habitat Healers volunteers.

“It was actually one of the first times they were able to play soccer on their beach because it had been so littered,” Valaika says. “That was pretty fulfilling.”

Recreation is an important part of the Habitat Healers philosophy: It isn’t all work and no play. Tapping in to the growing trends of eco-tourism and volunteer tourism, the group mixes some fun into all the hard work.

“What we’re trying to provide is a package where you not only do something good with your time during the day, but you have options with some activities, whether it’s surfing, zipline, photography, cooking, art — on the first trip we certainly had our fun,” Valaika says.

Lindsey Schaefer (BSBA ’09), one of three DU students to go on the Costa Rica expedition, says the journey gave her a chance to test her limits.

“Along with all the things we were able to accomplish tangibly on the trip, there was also a lot of personal growth for me,” she says. “I did things that I would have never done before and never thought I would have done. My feet hurt very much, and I was tired and dirty, but I had an amazing time.”

That’s music to Valaika’s ears.

“That’s really why I started this thing,” he says. “I was getting frustrated by the job market, and instead of complaining about it, I wanted to put my energy and resources somewhere that was going to make a difference.

Habitat Healers is planning a trip to Mexico in early 2010. For more information, visitwww.habitathealers.org.


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