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Refuge donors submit challenge to double Education Boardwalk contribution

By Staff | May 17, 2011

Members of the Martin-Strange family clan gathered recently at the refuge. Pictured in the back row, from left, is Gary Greenplate, Larry Sr., Katherine, Carol and Taylor Strange, and Ryan Greenplate. In the front row is Savanna, Larry Jr., Linda, Bill, Will and Delaney Strange, and MaryBeth and Kim Greenplate.

Members of Sanibel Island’s Strange family have laid down the gauntlet to help fund the building of the Children’s Education Boardwalk between The Sanibel School and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s Indigo Trail.

The family’s George and Miriam Martin Foundation will donate $25,000 if “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge (DDWS) raises the same amount in designated contributions.

The boardwalk will cross a brackish wetland currently inaccessible to the public, giving school children and visitors up-close views of alligators, wading birds, and more. It will meander through mangroves and expand into an in-the-round venue to accommodate up to 25 students and other groups.

“The gathering area will provide a perfect setting to learn lessons about the importance of water and mangrove estuary to our ecology,” said DDWS President Jim Scott. “We have been working with The Sanibel School on this project for a couple of years now and are thrilled with this funding breakthrough from the Martin-Strange family.”

The project is one of only a handful of school-refuge partnerships in the nation that are physically connected by a floating educational boardwalk, according to Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland.

“I’d been watching with great interest the talk about the trail and talking to Barbara [VonHarten, Sanibel School principal] about it,” said Carol Strange, daughter of George and Miriam Martin, foundation board member, and longtime volunteer at the school. “We felt the project needed a nudge. The foundation was all for it because a chunk of us live here, five of the kids have attended Sanibel School, and the foundation’s focus is river and watershed conservation.”

Strange’s brother, George Martin, Jr., of Philadelphia, started the foundation in memory of their parents in 1995. Since that time, the Martin Foundation has donated nearly $3 million to 91 different conservation organizations across the nation.

“Education is what it’s all about… I was in high school when my father graduated from college, so the importance of education was always present in our home,” said Strange. “He would work all day then run to school at night and was committed to making it easier for my brother and me.”

Besides volunteering at The Sanibel School and for other various island organizations, Strange has helped out with the refuge’s “Operations Scissors” monofilament removal team for many years. In 2009, she took visiting members of the foundation’s board – all family – on a “Ding” Darling monofilament mission. The board immediately became interested in supporting “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, so when the education boardwalk project arose, it saw a perfect fit.

“We are so excited about this $25,000 challenge and are hopeful others who enjoy this incredible refuge will want to support this as well to help us reach the $25,000 mark,” said DDWS Executive Director Birgie Vertesch. “This is a very important project to the refuge as well as to The Sanibel School, and the collaboration between the two will be amazing in helping to educate thousands of young students about the importance of preserving our wetlands locally and around the world.

“This boardwalk will be unique and something people of all ages will want to visit, teaching them the importance of water in our lives and how we must all be good stewards of this precious resource.

“We at J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge have a unique opportunity and responsibility to find ways to truly impact the learning of our young generation about our valuable wetlands and estuaries and help create a better tomorrow for themselves and future generations,” said Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland.

“We are honored to have the Martin Foundation as a partner in helping to make this boardwalk possible and achieve the education mission handed down to us from Jay ‘Ding’ Darling himself,” she added.

As a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, DDWS works to support J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s mission of conservation, wildlife and habitat protection, research, and public education through charitable donations and Refuge Nature Shop proceeds.

To join DDWS and support the refuge with a tax-deductible gift, visit www.dingdarlingsociety.org or contact Birgie Vertesch at 239-292-0566, 472-1100 ext. 4 or send an e-mail to director@dingdarlingsociety.org.