Disney Conservation Fund Awards Grants to Global Conservation Projects and Celebrates Cast Members Who Help Make It Possible

Claire Martin

by , Senior Manager, Strategic Philanthropy, Disney Corporate Social Responsibility

This year, the Disney Conservation Fund (DCF) is thrilled to award grants to 60 nonprofit organizations leading critical efforts to create a healthier home for people and wildlife.

These projects represent collaborative work among scientists, educators and communities globally to conserve and restore habitats, monitor and reduce threats to wildlife, teach kids about nature, and promote ecotourism and sustainable livelihoods that help people and animals. 

The fund is proud to support a new cohort of incredible projects this year, and we’d also like to express our appreciation for the Disney cast members who help make the DCF grants possible. For the past 50 years, cast members at Walt Disney World Resort have taken guests on new adventures, brought fantastic stories to life and made dreams of all shapes and sizes come true … but did you know they have also helped distribute more than $120 million in grants from the DCF to protect more than 1,000 species in 120 countries around the world? 

Every day, cast members at merchandise and food and beverage locations at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park and other select Walt Disney World Resort locations – as well as aboard Disney Cruise Line ships and select Disney Vacation Club resorts – make magic by growing guests’ passion for wildlife and empowering them to help the Disney Conservation Fund protect animals globally. 

Additionally, nearly 100 cast members from Disney sites around the world, ranging from veterinarians to animal keepers, scientists to chefs and educators to communications specialists, make up the committees that review proposals from nonprofit organizations seeking funding for their conservation programs. These cast members volunteer to review applications, discuss each project’s merits and provide recommendations for awarding available funding.

The DCF received a record number of funding applications in 2021 from worthy organizations leading important conservation work. The diverse backgrounds and extensive expertise of these dedicated cast members are critical to understanding and evaluating which proposed projects have the greatest potential conservation impact and ability to help create a brighter future for wildlife, people and habitats. 

We are pleased to introduce some of our cast members who have continually offered their time and talents to support the Disney Conservation Fund and critical projects around the world:

Eduardo Valdes

Meet: Eduardo Valdes, Operation Manager, Animal Nutrition Center

Central/South America Committee Member, 5 Years

Q: What do you find most rewarding about being a reviewer for the Disney Conservation Fund?

A: Every year for the last five years, I look forward to seeing which projects have a chance to be supported by the DCF. The variety of conservation issues and conservation needs are immense and increasing every year in the Central and South America region and in the world. The DCF has been a powerful catalyst to improve wildlife conservation in the region – many of the projects we supported have seen huge, positive results for conservation. I am happy to see funds support Re:wild, Jambatu and Centro de Conservación de Anfibios Amaru’s “Empowered Communities Saving Harlequin Toads” project this year because the community involvement is critical for the success of this project and will benefit the toads, habitats and people. As Walt Disney said, “Conservation isn’t just the business of a few people. It is a matter that concerns all of us.”

Karen Pellot

Meet: Karen Pellot, Guest Experience Manager – Merchandise

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Merchandise, 11 Years

Q: What drives you to support the Disney Conservation Fund?

A: I am motivated by the many passionate and dedicated cast in my area that make it their daily goal to share information on the Disney Conservation Fund with guests. They make every engagement memorable and inspire our guests to help make a difference. I find it fun taking the cast on different experiences, whether volunteering, helping with purple martin songbird monitoring, beach clean ups or a conversation with an Animal Keeper. Exposing cast to ways they can impact the future of conservation inspires them and helps them become great advocates for the DCF program. This is the legacy that I want to leave behind; cast members that inspire others to make a difference.

Mary Lueder

Meet: Mary Lueder, Animal Keeper 

Europe, Middle East, Australia Committee Member, 6 Years

Q: What project are you most excited to see supported this year?

A: Conservation has been important to me for a long time. I love supporting promising projects, and seeing the review process has been a great learning experience. I’m most excited about the “Rewilding Australia’s Red Centre” project this year. Many species in Australia are endangered and facing challenges, and Australian Wildlife Conservancy is creating a massive, predator-free habitat where threatened native wildlife can be safely re-introduced. They’re addressing conservation issues on a huge scale, and I can’t wait to see the results.

Sierra Pelizza

Meet: Sierra Pelizza, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Education Guide

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, 4 Years

Q: What drives you to support the Disney Conservation Fund?

A: I love leading programs that support and raise awareness about the Disney Conservation Fund because I get to be the source of inspiration for animal conservation. I sometimes get to be there the first time guests see an African Elephant or White Rhino in person, and I get to be their first conservation connection. I love getting to share my passion for these animals with guests and knowing it results in support for amazing projects like Save the Elephants’ work in Kenya to prevent elephant-human conflict by using honey bees as a natural deterrent to crop-raiding elephants!

Dawn Keeney

 Meet: Dawn Keeney, Merchandise Hostess

23 Years at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, 31 years at Walt Disney World

Q: What drives you to support the Disney Conservation Fund?

A: What drives me is keeping Walt’s and my father’s legacies alive. My father instilled in me a love of nature, and Walt was always my hero. And, of course, the animals and the planet. By educating people about the importance of nature, we all can come together and make a difference. Every person who visits us at Disney’s Animal Kingdom walks away knowing a little more about what we do for wildlife.

Chef Gary Jones

Meet: Chef Gary Jones, Culinary Environmental Specialist

Marine Committee Member, 1 Year

Q: Why did you become a DCF Reviewer?

A: I believe there is a connection between the great work of the DCF, project grantees and our operations teams’ goal to serve 100 percent environmentally responsibly sourced seafood at our domestic sites by 2022. Chefs play an important role in providing magical and surprise-and-delight moments with sustainable seafood. The Disney Conservation Fund supports projects that help keep our ocean ecosystems in balance so wild caught seafood can be prepared by our chefs and enjoyed by present and future guests. This year I am most excited about a project from China Blue Sustainability Institute to protect the Chinese white dolphin. With two of our theme parks in China, it’s important to support projects that increase public access to conservation knowledge. The Disney chefs in China also are focused on supporting vibrant ecosystems that can provide great seafood to their guests.

Bethany Dauner

Meet: Bethany Dauner, Education Manager

North America Committee Member, 3 Years 

Q: What project are you most excited to see supported this year?

A: I love seeing projects that support pollinator conservation, like this year’s community science monarch conservation program led by National Wildlife Federation, especially when they involve getting children and students excited about the impact they can have right in their own back yards! The little things that run the world need support and care, and we can have a direct impact on this conservation issue right at home. 

These are just some of the many outstanding Disney cast members who are the magic and true heart of the Disney Conservation Fund, and we – and communities and wildlife across the globe – are so grateful for their dedication.

For a complete list of the most recent DCF grant recipients, visit disney.com/conservation.

With special thanks for wildlife photos from: Jasper Scofield, China Blue Sustainability, Daniel Padilla, José Andrés Arredondo.

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