Inspiring Change: SeaLegacy’s Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen Honored at Brushwood Center’s Smith Nature Symposium Awards Dinner

On September 30, the Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods hosted its 39th annual Smith Nature Symposium, “Inspiring Change,” at the Greenbelt Cultural Center in North Chicago. Nearly 200 people attended the event to honor the extraordinary leadership of Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen and their impact on ocean justice and conservation as photographers, marine biologists, and founders of SeaLegacy.

Every year, the Smith Nature Symposium celebrates nature and those who have made a meaningful contribution to the conservation of the natural world. The first award of the night, the Environmental Youth Leadership Award, went to Nalani Hill, a 16-year-old student from Lake Forest Academy nominated by Brushwood Center partner, Cool Learning Experience (CLE).

Nalani Hill and Amy Heinrich, Smith Nature Symposium Host Committee Co-Chair

Later in the night, Mittermeier and Nicklen earned the Distinguished Environmental Leadership Award. The two, who are partners in life and business, work on the front lines of conservation. They started SeaLegacy in 2014, a non-profit to propel ocean conservation through visual storytelling, impact campaigns, and funding projects. 

Mittermeier and Nicklen are photographers creating stunning artistry and advocacy for their environment through their work. Evolve, the photography of Mittermeier and Nicklen, is available for viewing at the Brushwood Center Gallery until October 30, 2022. 

“Each year, we honor those making an environmental impact. But also try to bring in award recipients who have an art practice because Brushwood Center focuses on health equity and well-being through accessing nature and the arts,” says Mirja Spooner Haffner, Director of Development at Brushwood Center. “The fact that [Mittermeier and Nicklen] touched upon those two themes is significant for our annual fundraiser.”

The Smith Nature Symposium is Brushwood Center’s largest fundraiser. They raised $140,000 to benefit Brushwood Center’s programs for children, families, professionals, and veterans throughout the community. Of the total funds raised, $53,000 came from the night’s paddle raise, which is double what they received from their last in-person fundraiser three years ago. There was also a match opportunity through a Chicago Community Trust grant for up to $25,000, bringing the in-room total to $78,000. 

The evening started with a cocktail reception followed by the dinner procession with entertainment from Seven Springs Drums. The event, led by acclaimed emcees, television journalist Bill Kurtis and producer Donna LaPietra, included a land acknowledgment by Michael Pamonicutt and welcoming remarks from Host Committee Co-Chairs Disha Narang and Amy Heinrich

Catherine Game, Executive Director of Brushwood Center with Donna LaPietra, Bill Kurtis, Paul Nicklen, Board of Directors Chair Gail Sturm and Cristina Mittermeier

Numerous esteemed guests attended the dinner, including Vicky and George Ranney of the Ryerson family, who donated Brushwood Center’s building and the land of Ryerson Woods. Also in attendance were SeaLegacy CEO Jack Lighton and their Board Chair Ryan Kissick. The night also welcomed Arica Hilton and Sven Asmus of Hilton|Asmus Contemporary, who, thanks to the work of Brushwood Center Chair Gail Sturm, partnered with Brushwood to present Evolve.  

Rob Heinrich, Brushwood Board Member; Jacalyn Ramdin Johnson, Brushwood Board Member; Carl Johnson (husband of Jacalyn); and Lorra Rudman, Brushwood Board Member.

Out of respect for the vegan honorees who work to support the environment and ocean, all of the food from the night’s dinner were gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan and came from local farms. The local farms included Temple Organics Farm in Old Mill Creek, Illinois, Mick Klug Farm in St. Joseph, Michigan, and Herban Produce Farm in Chicago, Illinois. There was also a strolling dessert buffet with assorted mini cupcakes, cookies, brownies, and a Mexican cinnamon churro station. 

Seven Springs Drums

The support of generous sponsors made the night possible. Ambassador sponsors included Amy and Rob Heinrich, Michael M. Levin and family, Jean Meilinger, John Schneider, Adele Simmons, A. Gail and William Sturm

Program sponsors included The Chicago Community Trust, John and Kathleen Schreiber Foundation, Illinois Arts Council Agency, Illinois Humanities, Mid-America Arts Alliance, Oberweiler Foundation and more.

Watch the Awards Ceremony below:


How to Help:

Support the work of Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods and SeaLegacy.

Your donation to Brushwood Center helps improve the lives of our community. Brushwood Center collaborates with more than 50 partner organizations and 250 artists to deliver programs for youth, Veterans, families, and seniors throughout Lake County and the Chicago Region. Last year, Brushwood Center connected more than 8,000 people to art and nature. Help grow this impact by donating to Brushwood center today.

Through The Tide, a passionate community made up of people who give month to month in any amount they can, SeaLegacy makes it possible for anyone and everyone to become a vehicle for change. Members of The Tide community get the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes on SeaLegacy expeditions and to witness breathtaking ocean projects come to fruition. Join The Tide or give a one-time donation.

More from Better:


Jessica Braun Gervais is a Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in health, wellness, and fitness. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from Columbia College and has written content for various health and wellness institutions. Jessica Braun’s passion for wellness comes from her life as an elite athlete competing in Muay Thai kickboxing competitions across the country. In addition to sharing her expertise through writing, Jessica Braun also works as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. When she’s not writing or training, Jessica Braun enjoys reading historical fiction novels, discovering new coffee shops, and cuddling with her cattle dog, Brady.