When Laurie Reichenbach walks the Beaches of South Walton, she does so with the confidence of a seasoned Volunteer Beach Ambassador (VBA).
As the Director of the VBA’s, she has had many a conversation with the visitors and locals that flock to SoWal’s beautiful beaches. Each year, from March 1 to Oct. 31, the Volunteer Beach Ambassadors “go where the tourists go” (beaches, bike paths, various places in the community), to rub elbows with folks and help to educate them regarding our local beach codes and help answer questions regarding sea turtles, shore birds, marine life, dune lakes, etc.
“We have fun with our walks and get to know our beach-goers. Many are not aware of our local beach codes and don’t have a clue about what a hazard leaving deep holes or sandcastles at the end of the day are to our nesting sea turtles,” says Laurie. “We want to change the local beach culture one fun smile and greeting at a time.”
Working as an umbrella group under the Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles, the VBA’s (224 members last year) are easily identified as they go about wearing their cool VBA shirts and lanyards. The members wear their shirts pretty much everywhere (if they are wearing their shirts, they are “working as beach ambassadors”) and are just as likely to engage in educational chit chat at the local Publix as on the beach. They are true SoWal AMBASSADORS and take seriously their role in promoting Sea turtle conservation through education and awareness.
To become a Volunteer Beach Ambassador, one must first become a member of the Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles. Fee: $5. Reward: Priceless. The shirt, name tag and training materials are free with membership and VBA uniforms are sponsored by the Visit South Walton Tourist Development Council. The road to becoming a Volunteer Beach Ambassador begins with a mandatory Volunteer Beach Ambassador Training Class which lasts three hours and features instruction and education from SoWal’s Beach Operations Department, the South Walton Fire Department, South Walton Life Guards, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, and the Friends of South Walton Sea Turtles. Information gleaned from these training sessions will prepare volunteers for their season of beach culture empowerment. Volunteers must also be a full time Walton County Citizen or a second home owner who is in the area 3+ months per year. Volunteers are required to re-certify each year.
Students too can become VBA’s, but they must be accompanied by their parent and only work under the supervision of their parent. In 2018, 70 Jr. VBA’s hit the beach, all making their mark as Beach Ambassadors. The VBA’s are particularly cognizant of the current dispute regarding beach owner rights vs. customary use for all. Both locals and especially visitors to our beaches are very appreciative of all up-to-date county rulings. “Where can we set up on the beach” will be a prevalent question this beach season.
“Our Volunteer Beach Ambassadors are anxious to get started with our 2019 season,” says Laurie. “And, thanks to Jay Tusa and the Visit South Walton TDC, we have upgraded from our former Ambassador t-shirts to nice white, collared shirts with VISIT SOUTH WALTON, VOLUNTEER BEACH AMBASSADOR on the front, and on the back, VISIT SOUTH WALTON VOLUNTEER BEACH AMBASSADOR—so, as we approach, we look official and look not at all like enforcers, but like what we really are, EDUCATORS.”
Volunteer members are typically asked questions like, “where’s a good place to eat?”, or “we’re looking for music or dancing”,or “we found this on the beach, what is it?”
“What we strongly believe is that, if we can take you, a not-so-aware tourist, and invest you in ONE thing that becomes meaningful to you (Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize I was killing a LIVE sand dollar); if they can find ONE environmental factor that captures their attention, than we can quickly explain why we encourage picking up trash, covering up holes in the sand, or knocking down sand castles at the end of the day. With children, the Volunteers are trying to plant the seed for environmental protection.”
The Volunteers are a diverse bunch of friendly ambassadors whose assignments depend totally on their own schedules….they work only when they can work, for the amount of time they can work, and at the section of beach or community of their choosing. As the Volunteers go about their beach greeting, they typically are also picking up trash and handing out Sea turtle information. At the end of the day, volunteers that are working the beach can often be seen covering up leftover sand holes or knocking down sandcastles…both extremely detrimental to Sea turtle nesting or prone to human injury.
“This is the most flexible volunteer job you can have in this County,” explains Laurie.
Volunteer hours are tabulated daily (Laurie is a tabulationmeister!) and last years (2018) VBA of the Year, Assistant Director Michelle Phillips, volunteered 1137.5 hours to the group’s efforts! With all the current controversy swirling around “who owns the beach”, the VBA’s are a welcome sight and positive influence for the millions of visitors to our beautiful SoWal beaches. From November through February, the VBA’s sponsor a free and open- to- the- public “We Share the Beach” education series held monthly at the Coastal Branch Library.
Asked what the best slogan for the Volunteer Beach Ambassadors would be, Laurie is quick to reply: “We are the Beach Keepers” for the county!” Beach Keepers of SoWal….the next time you see one of them, stop and chat a while, you’ll probably learn something and be glad you did! Remember: Sea turtles need the beaches #CleanDarkFlat!
For more information about, or to become a Volunteer Beach Ambassador, please visit www.friendsofswturtles.org or call Laurie: 214-505-6273. Upcoming 2019 training sessions will be held as follows: Saturday, March 2, 9 a.m.-noon (both held at the TDC conference room, Visit South Walton Visitor Information Center, 25777 Hwy. 331 South) and the remainder of the sessions to be held at the Coastal Branch Library, 437 Greenway Trail, Santa Rosa Beach, Fl.: Wednesday, March 20, 6:30-9 p.m.; Tuesday, April 16, 6:30-9 p.m.; Wednesday, May 15, 6:30-9 p.m.; Tuesday, June 18, 6:30-9 p.m.; Wednesday, July 17, 6:30-9 p.m.; and Wednesday, Aug. 14, 6:30-9 p.m