top of page


Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Even though students live on the coast in New Hanover County, many have never visited the ocean or explored the neighboring Masonboro Island - the largest undisturbed barrier island on the southern coast – right in their backyard. To remedy this, created the Masonboro Island Explorers program, and thanks to grants from the Community Foundation of NC East, they've been able to introduce the program to over 2000 students. was started in 2009 due to the annual 4th July celebrations on Masonboro Island that drew large crowds of partygoers that left garbage behind and polluted the island. This prompted North Carolina state leaders and officials to question whether they should place new restrictions on the public and their access to the island. That’s when stepped in with 75 “red shirt” volunteers who donated their time to hand out free trash bags and encourage partygoers to properly dispose of their trash at home.

The organization, along with its volunteers, has successfully cleaned thousands of pounds of trash from the island over the years and got their message “pack everything you packed in” to finally stick with the public. In addition, in 2013, they launched the Masonboro Island Explorer Program, an educational, science-based field trip to Masonboro Island for fifth-grade students in New Hanover County. The Masonboro Island Explorers program connects the content from the classroom with hands-on experiences in the living laboratories of the Reserve.

“What a fantastic example of living well and doing good that the Community Foundation NC East recently had the opportunity to share by presenting a grant to,” says CEO Melissa Spain. “There is no greater opportunity than for us to join as partners with this outstanding nonprofit in Wilmington, North Carolina, to help them further their important mission of protecting public access, promoting responsible use, and preserving the traditions of Masonboro Island. They do such incredible work in efforts to keep those traditions - surfing, fishing, boating, paddle boarding - open to you, your children, and even your pets for generations to come.”

The program has had a lot of success and growth since 2008. With the generous support of the community, donors, and grants like the Community Foundation of NC East, has been able to introduce this program to more than 2000 students. After taking a Carolina Ocean Studies ferry to the island, students participate in three learning labs that cover water quality, shoreline stabilization, and weather patterns – aligned with the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Next, instructors from Carolina Ocean Studies lead students through hands-on activities at the oceanfront beach, salt marsh, and inland tide pool. A favorite includes collecting crabs after learning about water quality and tides.

“As CEO of The Community Foundation of NC East, one of the things I absolutely treasure most, which is getting the opportunity to do site visits with our Grantees, and spend quality time with them learning, sharing and building relationships,” says Spain.

“Without a doubt, this was one of the most impressive programs I have witnessed in my 25 years in the Philanthropy Business. Not only was this an incredibly wonderful group of 93 fifth-grade students, but what a fantastic day of learning. It was like an entire day in the Science Lab. The program directors, volunteers, and parents make this a learning experience that the students will never forget. What a fantastic way to invest in the lives of our youth while preserving the beauty of Masonboro Island, which we all treasure and love dearly."

For more information on the philanthropic work of the Community Foundation NC East please click here. To sign up as a Red Shirt Volunteer or contribute to Masonboro Island click here.


bottom of page