In South Walton, there are several organizations that support environmental conservation and education. “The common goal is to protect our environment, and we’re all doing that through different volunteer activities,” says Laurie Reichenbach, a board member of the Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles (FOSWST), and Director of the Volunteer Beach Ambassadors. Our eco system in South Walton is very special. The coastal dune lakes we have are rare, and they provide a wetland system that filters water and provides a habitat for a variety of wildlife, flora and fauna.
The Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles is a 501(c)(3) volunteer group organized in 2015 to promote awareness and education in the South Walton community, and is one of the most extensive hands on organizations we have. They started out with a heavy focus on sea turtle conservation, which is still the classroom focus, and has expanded into education of our environment and ecosystem; with hands on learning groups on the beach, which is a part of the Volunteer Beach Ambassadors.
The Beach Ambassador program has gone beyond just the sea turtle program. “Not only do we want to tell you about our turtles, but we want to remind you of the importance of the ‘snowy plover’. We want to tell you about our hiking trails. We want to tell you about the dolphins; the manatees that occasionally come into the Gulf.” It’s a way to instill the importance of this amazing ecosystem.
The FOSWST and The Volunteer Beach Ambassadors work with the support of the resources of the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) to educate and train volunteers. The first training sessions of the year are live sessions with members of the TDC, Code Enforcement, Lifeguards, Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office. Training is monthly from now through August with educational sessions throughout the year.
Reichenbach encourages people to bring their kids (ages 8 and up) with them to Volunteer Beach Ambassador training sessions and help at the beach as honorary ambassadors. “It’s a great way for families to spend time together,” she said.
There is no required amount of time to serve and volunteer. “You serve when you can serve, where you can serve and for how ever long you can serve.” You are expected to wear your official Volunteer Beach Ambassador t-shirt, and represent yourself and the organization with integrity. While volunteering, having a sand bucket with you is helpful for picking up trash. You are encouraged to engage with people you see on the beach, and answer any questions they may have. “We need to educate our folks so that they can fill up their mental tool box,” says Reichenbach. “This is where the training and education sessions come in handy”.
One important thing to teach guests at the beach is the “#cleandarkflat” initiative. Clean refers to taking back with you what you bring to the beach, including trash. Dark refers to keeping the beaches free of light pollution as much as possible during turtle nesting season. Hatchlings follow the moon to the water when they hatch and artificial light can confuse them and strand them onshore. Flat refers to filling in holes and knocking down sandcastles to keep obstacles at a minimum for the hatchlings, and also for the mothers when they come to shore to nest.
“We believe a smile and a greeting to a guest on our beach, leaving behind a tidbit of information, helps drop that stone in the water that has a ripple effect for years to come,” Laurie said. Helping people understand the impact we have on our environment now can have a positive effect down the line. “We just have to drop those stones one at a time and see what ripple effect we have in the future.”
The next training sessions to become a Volunteer Beach Ambassador are March 28th, April 24th and May 24th. All meetings are at 6:30 pm at the Coastal Branch Library. The FOSWST is also taking requests for children’s groups to learn on the beach. You can visit their Website at www.friendsofswsturtles.org and email them at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.