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‘Ding’ summer camp will return next year

By Staff | Aug 12, 2015

Campers of the very first J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Nature Explorers Summer Day Camp enjoyed biking around the refuge as one of the many activities they participated in during the week long camp. PHOTO PROVIDED

Two additional weeks will be added to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Nature Explorers Summer Day Camp next year due to this years overwhelming success.

“It was so much fun and rewarding. It was amazing,” Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland said. “It’s the best camp on Sanibel.”

She said before this summer, she had turned down the idea of having a summer camp at the refuge for six years because she knew how much work goes into holding one for the youngsters.

“I knew it was going to be extra work,” she said, adding “but I want kids to learn during the summer.

This year, Westland finally entertained the idea and after the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge received a $15,000 donation from an anonymous provider, offering the camp was a no brainer.

“It was a success and I was wrong,” Westland said.

She said the excitement that radiated off of Ranger Becky Larkins and her interns went full circle impacting the kids as they embarked on a new adventure every day ranging from visits to the beach, to bike rides around the refuge, and saltwater fishing.

For just $50, kids 9 to 12 years old had the opportunity to enjoy the fun filled week. For those who could not afford the $50, scholarships were available.

Westland said it was important to them to reach out and offer the camp to underserved communities in Lee County.

For one week, kids from the Tice community enjoyed the camp, which offered a first time experience of enjoying Sanibel for many of them. Westland said “Ding’s” mini bus, which can transport 14, traveled to Fort Myers to pick up the kids for camp each morning and dropped them off at the same location once the camp concluded.

Westland said every single day, every second they were reminded why they decided to offer the camp for the youngsters.

At the end of the week the campers walked away with a new fishing pole, a backpack and a thumb drive full of pictures from a underwater camera they used during camp.

Westland’s favorite part of the week was Friday night when the parents attended a special graduation ceremony at the refuge. The ceremony included d’oeuvres, dessert and a certificate that was personalized for each student that attended the camp. The Society also documented the week long camp through a video that included music for the parents to get a glimpse of their child’s experience.

“Parents were crying,” Westland said recalling the emotional ceremony.

The camp, she said formed incredible relationships between the youngsters and Larkins and her interns.

“The kids will remember the refuge,” Westland said.

Next year’s camp will be extended from four weeks to six weeks to touch more youth and teach them about wildlife and conservation. Westland said they decided to extend the number of weeks the camp is held because of the lack of funding for staffing and transportation.

Each week a new set of 14 students will benefit from the Nature Explorers Day Camp, Westland.

The camp will also add another element – a biology component where kids might have the opportunity to do small mammal trapping and water quality testing.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.