WESTERLY — Michael "Spike" Lobdell, founder, president and CEO of New England Science & Sailing in Stonington, has joined a distinguished group of local residents.
Lobdell, widely applauded for creating one of the most successful community sailing programs in the country, is this year's Citizen of the Year, an award bestowed by the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce and considered by many to be the highest honor for business leaders in the two-state region.
Established in 1957, the award recognizes the "outstanding leadership" and the "exceptional contributions" made by award-winners to the greater Westerly-Stonington region. In selecting the person to honor each year, chamber members consider qualities like community leadership, integrity and creativity. Candidates must also possess "strong communication skills and broad social perspectives," said Chamber President Lisa Konicki in a statement announcing the award. A person's contributions to business and civic life and to nonprofit organizations are also considered, she said, as is the candidate's efforts in promoting the community image and improving the area's quality of life.
Former recipients include philanthropist Charles "Chuck" Royce, the late John "Whit" Davis, City of Groton Police Chief Michael Spellman, financial advisor Mal Makin and the late Angela Smith.
"I am incredibly honored to received this recognition," said Lobdell in an email Wednesday, "but I'm also humbled to be singled out."
"The recognition is really for the whole team whose dedicated work in support of the students has transformed lives," Lobdell added. "That’s the real recognition. I am proud of the entire team."
"Spike is an extraordinary citizen who has made an outstanding contribution to our community," said Maria Allen, chairperson of the chamber board in a statement. "He is a visionary leader who has selflessly dedicated many years of professional expertise and passion to his deep-seated belief in community access to the ocean."
"He has made NESS a world-class learning platform and has positively impacted the lives of thousands in the process,” Allen added.
The award will be presented to Lobdell at the chamber's annual meeting and dinner, scheduled to be held at Paddy's Beach Club in Misquamicut on June 15 at 6 p.m., when three other local business leaders will also be honored. Beth Frenette, Jeff Frenette and Bruce Morrow will be given the chamber's "Key Award," bestowed upon individuals who have "gone above and beyond in their commitment to the chamber."
Lobdell, a New Jersey native, founded NESS in 2002 as a community sailing program with just 14 students. Today, NESS educates more than 9,000 students each year, has an annual budget of more than $3 million, and employs 26 full-time employees and AmeriCorps volunteers and a staff that can reach 75 during peak summer months.
"Setting this program apart," said Konicki, are Lobdell's core values of inclusion and his vision to get all students out on the water, many who would otherwise not have had the opportunity.
"In particular, Lobdell has focused on providing access to underserved youth and persons with disabilities," said Konicki. "NESS is a significant organization in the region ... [one that] estimates that its programs have reached more than 50,000 students, empowering them to get out on the water, engage in STEM learning, and acquire life skills that arise from ocean adventure."
Since 2008, Spike has devoted all of his time to NESS as a volunteer in the role of president/CEO, said Konicki, and in this capacity "he directs the execution of the mission, and oversees staffing, development, facility maintenance, community relations, and growth."
In November 2018, NESS became the first school partner program in the country to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and during the COVID-19 pandemic NESS maintained its staff and developed a suite of online experiential learning programs.
In 2016, the National Recreation Foundation awarded Lobdell the Robert Crawford prize for the individual who has done the most to advance the lives of inner-city youth through recreation. He was also honored that year as the "Outstanding Organizational Leader" of a sailing program and in 2020 U.S. Sailing, the governing body of the sport, honored him with its highest community sailing award: the Martin A. Lurray Award for outstanding achievements fostering public access to sailing.
Known as a generous man, Lobdell also supports many other nonprofits in the region, Konicki said, including the Mystic Seaport Museum, Stonington Free Library, Salt Marsh Opera, the Stonington Historical Society, Westerly Hospital Foundation, United Theatre and the Ocean Community YMCA.
Lobdell was also a founding member of the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club and served as its second commodore. He was a member of the first board of directors that created the La Grua Center, and made sure that NESS was one of four community nonprofits to participate in a cohort of diversity, equity and inclusion training sponsored by the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut.
The annual dinner is open to the public but pre-registration is required by calling the chamber at 401-596-7761.