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How the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society Puts Donations To Work for Wildlife & Conservation Education
Hatched out of Necessity
They built it, and they came. They came to the first "Ding" Darling Visitor Center, completed circa 1982, in droves -- 11,000 in the first month after the center opened. They came so eager to learn what the Refuge was about that they overwhelmed a staff unused to dealing with the inquisitive public.
That's how "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society (DDWS) came to be, born of sheer desperation. In June 1982, the founding Board of Directors met with Refuge staff to establish the new Friends group.
Bud Ryckman, Refuge volunteer and president of the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, stepped up to the challenge of taking the helm. With him were William Frey, vice-president; Milena Eskew, secretary; Dan Kimpel, treasurer; Millie Ford, volunteer drive coordinator; Reed Toomey, legal counsel; and Reed Palmer, accounting consultant.
On October 6, 1982, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society was established when the Florida Secretary of State approved the articles of incorporation. Bud quickly went about soliciting more than $2,000 in donations to purchase books to sell in support of Refuge activities. Millie recruited and trained new volunteers to staff the information desk and help the refuge interpret the new exhibits.
The main topic of business at that first meeting was naming the group, according to the late Milena Eskew. "We thought '''Ding" Darling Wildlife Society' gave us some class."
By the next meeting in February 1983, volunteers had responded to the need in great numbers and with great enthusiasm, reported Millie Ford.
Spreading Our Wings
By 1999, "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society had grown strong enough to build its own Visitor & Education Center. It raised $3.3 million to finance the new building and its state-of-the-art exhibits. In the meantime, the volunteer corps has grown to 280 and has been recognized nationwide as the model for other refuge cooperating associations.
Nationally, the Society has won several prestigious awards: The National Voluntary Service Award in 1991 from the National Recreation and Parks Association, the Friends Group of the Year in 1999 from the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and the Southeast Regional Directors Award in 2009 for its help with distributing funds for refuge employees who were affected by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2012, Lee County tourism awarded the Society its Chrysallis Award for Education, and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) bestowed upon the Society and Refuge its global Phoenix Award for conservation in tourism.
Membership ranks have swelled from that original board of seven in 1982 to some 1,500 today. The Society's support role for the Refuge has grown to include the financial support of interns, supporting new exhibits and trails, leading land acquisition campaigns, and spearheading advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C.
The Society's work continues in big and small ways to keep the Refuge running despite federal budget and staff cuts. To help in our important work and to become a member and a Friend of the Refuge, click HERE.