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History of Sanibel a specialty of volunteer docents

By Staff | Jan 20, 2016

The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village has heavily relied on volunteers to run day-to-day operations, including its docent program, which heads tour guides and building docents. This group has a healthy history in the docent program, including (L to R) front: Gail Garlinghouse and Janet Halliday. Back: Dorothy Donaldson, Bill Bachman and Gayle Pence. BRIAN WIERIMA

The volunteer docent program at the Sanibel Historical Village is getting a boost with its training session underway, with 25 signed up and 18 of them being entirely new volunteers.

It’s the docent volunteers which allows the Historical Village to function, with the many man hours which are donated. Currently, there are approximately 25 docents who volunteer, by heading the tours or by being a docent of a certain building.

The opportunity of becoming a docent has many benefits, including learning the rich history of Sanibel, meeting people from all over the world and socializing with the rest of the Historical Village volunteers.

“You get caught up in the escapism of being able to travel to a different time,” said veteran docent Gail Garlinghouse. “It’s that, which keeps us coming back.”

There is a core of docents which have nearly 10 years of experience, including Janet Halliday, who has just a little under 20 years.

She has seen the many changes and evolution of the Historical Village, the most noticeable being the much larger numbers of guests who visit the museum, which contains 10 buildings, beautiful gardens and an atmosphere of days past.

“It’s absolutely more popular than it was years back,” Halliday said.

“I remember the days where we would sit and wait on the porch out front and we’d get only 10 people a day to come through,” said Volunteer Committee chair Gayle Pence. “But we have been so fortunate to have such a plethora of interesting, responsible and dedicated people who volunteer here. We are lucky to have so many people with so many different skills.”

Emilee Alfino, the Museum Manager, said there are about 100 volunteers – which is growing annually – who donate their time to the Historical Village in many different capacities.

“It takes a lot of people to run the Village, we wouldn’t be able to do it without the volunteers,” Alfino said.

The docent training will consist of two hours of going through the training guide, which contains historical facts about each building. The second session, which is Jan. 25, will consist of touring each building firsthand and getting to know them better.

The training manual is thick and can be a little intimidating for the new volunteers, but it’s a process which takes time, Pence said.

“The guidebook is set up to be user-friendly,” Pence added. “We have cliff notes on each of the buildings, which starts off knowing about five or six things about each building. Most people touring, only remember one or two things from each building, anyways, so we don’t need to scare of the volunteers by requiring them to memorize the book.”

The experienced docents are also a part of the training, with some becoming mentors to the new volunteers. They are open for questions and will give advice.

The majority of new docents will be a docent of a certain building, before becoming a full-blown tour guide. That allows them to grow comfortable and accustom themselves to the Historical Village environment.

“All the knowledge will come in time,” Pence said.

There are certain buildings which a docent favors, like the Bailey’s Store for Donaldson.

“I love the Bailey’s Store because there is so much history of the community centered around it,” Donaldson said. “I like talking about the history of the people of the store, though, because they were such an important part of Sanibel’s history.”

Tour guides and building docents are needed because of the busy schedule and the amount of people which go through each day. Alfino said the Historical Village had 10,000 visitors last year alone.

There are two tour blocks a day run by the tour guides, with mid-October through April being Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The tours from May through July is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The cost for the tour is $10 per adult over the age of 18, with members and children free.

“Our busiest days seem to be Tuesday and Wednesday, with Fridays being busy because the Ding Darling (Wildlife Refuge) trails are closed,” said veteran docent and volunteer Bill Bachman. “We love questions, too, from the tour groups, because that means they are paying attention and are interested.”

Since the property and buildings are owned by the City of Sanibel, and that the Historical Village is a non-profit and are the operators and educators, funds are always needed.

“We have to fundraise for more money, because the buildings are aging and we are the caretakers of those buildings,” Donaldson said.

The volunteer base isn’t just from Sanibel, either, with several living off island in Fort Myers, as well.

“You get to learn the history where you live and it’s all fascinating,” Donaldson said.

There are two docent training sessions, one in the fall and one in the spring. For more information about volunteering at the Historical Village, call 239-472-4648 or visit the website at www.sanibelmuseum.org .