An Ocean of Memories

Thanks to his mother’s gift, D.J. Rainone will be honored by the conservation work carried out by ORCA in the building bearing his name

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Trudie Rainone feels a pull toward the ocean ever since she and her family scattered the ashes of her son D.J. after his death from cancer at age 44. Photo by Steven Martine
Trudie Rainone feels a pull toward the ocean ever since she and her family scattered the ashes of her son D.J. after his death from cancer at age 44. Photography by Steven Martine

The art of giving isn’t just about making a monetary gift. It’s as much about devoting time, fostering passion for a cause, and sharing that passion with others. With these elements combined, one person can make extraordinary things happen. And Trudie Rainone should know, because she has done it.  

Just ask any of the myriad local organizations she has championed over the years. A recent example is her major gift to the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) to purchase its much-needed and soon-to-be-opened headquarters, which will be named the D.J. Rainone Research and Science Center in memory of her son.

Rainone first learned about ORCA through her work with Quail Valley Charities. Impressed with the nonprofit’s conservation work, she subsequently joined its board. Her true passion for the organization, however, came through her son, who spent as much time as he could swimming in the ocean off Vero Beach, walking along its beaches, feeling energized by its majesty, and appreciating the need to preserve its waters and the life they sustain. 

ORCA’s One Health Fish Monitoring program is currently working out of a small space on the Vero Beach Regional Airport property. Photo by Steven Martine
ORCA’s One Health Fish Monitoring program is currently working out of a small space on the Vero Beach Regional Airport property.

D.J. was a successful entrepreneur, a caring individual who volunteered for Operation Smile in Kenya, and a supporter of environmental causes. Tragically, he died of cancer in 2021 at the age of 44. He asked that his ashes be scattered in the ocean, and on a windy day shortly after his funeral, that is exactly what his mother and other family members did. And that’s when Trudie Rainone became passionate about the ocean.

The facility purchased by ORCA on 16th Street will be its new headquarters in the fall
The facility purchased by ORCA on 16th Street will be its new headquarters in the fall.

“As a mother, you take care of your children. My son is in the ocean and now I must take care of the ocean.”

Rainone’s contribution to ORCA came at a crucial time for the science-based environmental organization, which maps pollution in the Indian River Lagoon and seeks solutions. In fact, as Edie Widder, ORCA’s founder, CEO, and senior scientist, puts it, “It was utterly transformative.”

Widder, who has a PhD in neurobiology and has become renowned the world over for her deep-sea research, explains, “We started ORCA in 2005 working from my existing grants, and it’s been a struggle, much more of one than I ever anticipated. The whole time we had been operating out of the historic Coast Guard building in Fort Pierce, owned and leased to us by Indian River State College. But very unexpectedly we got evicted, with only 60 days’ notice. So we had been hunting for a place to move, and we found a building in Vero Beach that was perfect for our needs with not a huge amount of renovation.” The price tag was $825,000.

Volunteers monitor the health of the Indian River Lagoon
Volunteers monitor the health of the Indian River Lagoon.

Rainone went on a field trip to look at the building with Widder and board chair Wayne Mills and heard them discuss getting a loan to buy it. “At that time, I had not planned on making this gift,” Rainone remembers. “A half a million dollars is a lot of money to give away. But it just came to me, and I knew I could make this happen for them.”

Deep Water River by Rita Ziegler is one of several paintings hanging on the wall at the current facility showing local waters and their inhabitants. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Deep Water River by Rita Ziegler is one of several paintings hanging on the wall at the current facility showing local waters and their inhabitants. Photo by Kelly Rogers

So, she announced on the spot that she would like to give $500,000 and would like the building named for her son. “We were absolutely speechless!” Widder says.

The organization went on to raise the additional funds to buy and renovate the 6,500-square-foot building at 1235 16th Street, which will open in the fall as the D.J. Rainone Research and Science Center. And not a moment too soon, Widder says, because ORCA is currently operating its vital research and science programs in space donated by the City of Vero Beach on airport property. “We have been practically sitting on each other’s laps, but at least we have been able to continue our work.”

One project that Widder is most excited about is the One Health Fish Monitoring program that will flourish in the new building. It’s a project in which ORCA collects fish from fisherman along the 156-mile lagoon and assays them for naturally occurring and man-made toxins. 

ORCA’s founder and CEO, Edie Widder, says the gift given by board member Trudie Rainone is transformative for the organization
ORCA’s founder and CEO, Edie Widder, says the gift given by board member Trudie Rainone is transformative for the organization.

“The data collected in this project provides evidence of the degree to which specific pollutants are accumulating in the aquatic food chain, which then may be transferred to humans and other animals that eat fish. It will also provide evidence to support our efforts to localize sources of specific pollutants,” Widder explains.

Rainone has not stopped with her son’s eponymous center in making things happen for ORCA, Widder adds. “Trudie is a true philanthropist. She told us we needed an endowment, so she provided the initial funding for one at the Indian River Community Foundation; then she paid for our annual report to donors of Quail Valley Charities, sponsored our fundraiser, and continues to introduce people to us.”

Most recently, Rainone paid for two years of advertising on the GoLine bus that travels its route along Vero Beach’s barrier island.

ORCA monitors levels of naturally occurring and man-made toxins found in the Indian River Lagoon
ORCA monitors levels of naturally occurring and man-made toxins found in the Indian River Lagoon.

Rainone’s philanthropy goes well beyond ORCA in Vero Beach. She sits on five local nonprofit boards, offering her financial support and her time. She has started endowments for Senior Resource Association and Youth Guidance Mentoring Academy. She served on Gifford Youth Achievement Center’s capital campaign committee, and her personal donation to GYAC resulted in the naming of the center’s computer room in memory of her husband, Donald Rainone, who died in 2017.

Rainone says her parents, who were German immigrants, were charitable in a hands-on way and set the example that she follows today. “I grew up in the Bronx, and my mother cleaned homes,” she says. “On weekends, she and my father would collect clothes and canned goods and send them to people in Germany who were struggling after the war.” 

By age 16, Rainone herself was volunteering her time. She learned that a local hospital needed bed pads, something we take for granted today. So she helped collect and bleach bed sheets, and two days a week after school, she brought them to the hospital, where she helped sew the pads for the patients. Rainone, in turn, has passed the art of giving on to her own children.

Rosa Tierman, an ORCA volunteer for three years, tests fish in the lab space at Vero Beach Regional Airport as part of the One Health Fish Monitoring program.
Rosa Tierman, an ORCA volunteer for three years, tests fish in the lab space at Vero Beach Regional Airport as part of the One Health Fish Monitoring program.

Devoting her time continued when Rainone and her husband retired to Vero Beach. During COVID, she checked on recipients of Senior Resource’s Meals on Wheels program, making sure they were all right and stepping in when they were not. For seven years she taught etiquette to youngsters at the Boys & Girls Club, and she has made countless visits to shut-ins in assisted living and nursing facilities.

Widder calls Rainone a fairy godmother. “We adore Trudie on so many levels,” she says. “She is such a lovely person, and she’s a dynamo.” This statement is no doubt echoed throughout Indian River County among the countless residents and organizations that Rainone has touched with her passion and personal style of philanthropy. 

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