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Two young girls raise money for the Shell Museum

By Staff | Feb 6, 2016

Holly Benton, 7 and her sister Alyssa, 10, sit on the beach with handmade signs encouraging other beach goers to take ones that appeal to them. PHOTO PROVIDED

A family that loves finding such shells as junonia and alphabet cones began raising funds for the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum after the generosity of the public turned one thing into another.

Donnie Benton said when his daughter Alyssa was 4 or 5 years old they were at Blind Pass looking for shells. After the duo found a handful they decided to give them away to others on the beach. What Donnie envisioned as his daughter giving shells away for free, quickly changed when he turned his back for five minutes.

“She had $15 in her hand already,” Donnie said.

Since he was already donating shells to the museum, they decided if people wanted to donate money, that too would go towards the museum.

“The girls put a free shell sign up and we have a donation bucket for the museum,” he said of his daughters, Alyssa, 10 and Holly, 7. “It’s not mandatory that they donate. People throw money in and some take the shells.”

The girls set up a towel at either Lighthouse Beach, or Blind Pass with shells the family has found, accompanied by a sign that reads “free shells,” “have as many as you want” and “pick anyone you want.”

“They like engaging people on the beach and looking in their shell pack,” Donnie said.

So far, the girls have raised more than $100 through donations from individuals picking shells from their pile on the beach.

A five gallon bucket is about half full of shells the three of them have found together ready for their next trip.

“They are educating them and letting them know what shells are what,” he said of his daughters. “They have fun doing that. They are very open with people.”

Donnie’s passion of shelling began 40 years ago after his family moved to the area when he was 10. He spent a year on the beach “chasing shells” after his mother turned him onto the hobby.

Although he loves finding alphabet cones, he has also found 13 whole juonia’s over the years. Donnie said it’s all about using timing, wind and tides and figuring out where the shells are going to be and when.

“The best shells are found before the sun comes up,” he said.

The search is typically done on all the beaches of Sanibel, and often times through free diving with a mask. Donnie said depending on the tide determines how far out he might venture for shells.

“The girls are really good in the water and on land,” he said. “They know mostly all the shells. They know how to find them.”

This past week was ideal for the hunt of shells, according to Donnie.

“The night shelling and the tides have been amazing,” he said. “The tides were really the lowest last week.”

A couple of years ago Donnie received the nickname The Shellinator and eventually started a Facebook group for individual’s to show their finds. The group is comprised of a lot of locals, as well as people who travel to Sanibel.

“The group is growing really fast,” Donnie said of the page now including 3,500 people.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.