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Island residents among volunteers for constructing fishing pier, walkway

By Staff | Sep 21, 2016

A dedication will be held today at Riverside Camp & Retreat Center for a walkway and pier built by many island residents PHOTO PROVIDED

An idea that surfaced three years ago was recently completed to help campers enjoy an activity they love fishing.

The Riverside Camp & Retreat Center Walkway and Fishing Pier Dedication will be held today at 10:15 a.m. for the Robert V. & Benjamin G. Miller Fund Trailways Camp.

“This began as a project to address a specific need for a high need population. What it became over time was a community project. It’s not just our camps, we have three camps a year, but everyone who comes there can use it,” Sharon Miller, founder, said. “It becomes a contribution to the community and it was made by the community. It’s a whole lot more than a fishing pier for Trailways Camp.”

The dedication will include many speeches, as well as surprise presentation and a ribbon cutting.

The Trailways Camp began by Sanibel residents Jerry and Sharon Miller due to their personal experience of caring for their two sons who have a rare disease.

Dean Skaugstad. MEGHAN MCCOY

The camp came to fruition after their son, Robert, passed away in 2005 while the family lived in Texas. Sharon said they tried to think of a way to honor his memory while making a contribution in a world where they saw individuals with disabilities and their families not having a way to stay connected to share joy and sorrow.

As the couple discussed what they could do, they discovered there were no camps for adults with disabilities.

“After school there is nothing. Many of them have difficulty finding employers that will hire them, or if they are able to compete in the job market in a sheltered way. They live very lethargic lives because there are no activity programs. They become quite isolated,” Sharon said.

She added due to healthcare improvements those with disabilities are living longer lives.

“So you will see people that are 80 something years old taking care of someone who is 60 with down syndrome. That is a lot of years of caregiving” Sharon said. “Even though the vision of our camps is to provide something meaningful for adults with special needs, it would also provide respite opportunities for families and caregivers.”

The camp was started in Texas with more than 20 camps before they eventually moved to Sanibel. Sharon said when they moved to Florida they found partnerships before kicking off the camps.

The Miller’s found a site on the Caloosahatchee River at Riverside Camp and Retreat Center in Labelle. From there they found a provider, Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida Inc. that was willing to buy their mission and hire staff. The final step was creating a partnership with the SW Florida Community Foundation to take care of finances.

“When we are prepared to grant the money to pay for the meals, or the staff payroll, to either Goodwill or Riverside, then we request the check from them,” Sharon said.

The first camp at Riverside began October 2012. The next camp, Sept. 21-Sept. 24, will mark the eleventh camp.

It was quickly discovered that the campers found a joy in fishing, which resulted in an obstacle.

“There is a pretty steep hill that is about 20 degrees down to the Caloosahatchee River,” Jerry said.

Sharon said the campers had to go down 100 feet on a 20 degree slope, which created difficulty for campers in wheelchairs.

Jerry said the complexity of getting people down to the river resulted in cutting down the brush along the water for a couple of years, as well as carrying wheelchairs and people.

“The evaluation showed the thing they disliked the most about camp was getting down to fish,” he said, which prompted the question of how could they fix the problem, while still giving the campers the ability to do what they enjoy the most fishing. “We decided the way to solve it is to build a fishing pier on the river to a walkway from the top of the hill down to the fishing pier.”

The Miller’s quickly learned that they had to work with the Army Corp of Engineers to complete the project, as well as work with volunteers.

Dean Skaugstad, a resident of Sanibel, became the project volunteer leader.

“I knew what it required because I worked with handicap (projects),” he said. “I know the rules and regulations.”

Skaugstad has been doing maintenance and repair at SCCF for 20 years, which has many handicap accessible ramps.

“It makes you feel good,” he said about volunteering his expertise and time for the project. “I did this for a very selfish reason. I get paid back 100 times. Most handicap people are pushed off to the side. They go to camp and they are amongst their peers. They beam and explode and have so much fun. I take my hat off to Jerry. He is doing a great job. I will help him any day.”

The Miller’s began finding partnerships to help with the expenses of building the pier and boardwalk.

Florida United Methodist Camps & Retreats provided funds for the pier pilings in the river, which Honc Marine Contracting Inc. built.

“Honc put up the pilings and frame and we did the deck and railing,” Skaugstad said.

Once the pilings were in, they had to research how to build the boardwalk.

Jerry said due to ADA requirements they could go up one inch per foot of elevation, every 30 feet a five foot level spot had to be constructed for people to rest and then every 60 feet a turnaround had to be installed in case a wheelchair was going up the boardwalk and another going down. A post had to also be put into the ground every 15 feet.

“First we didn’t have the right equipment and we knew we had to have laser measurements,” Jerry said.

The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation lent them their laser equipment for the project.

“I can’t tell you how many hours we spent lying on the ground on this hill measuring with those lasers to make sure we had the angle right,” Jerry said.

Approximately 50 volunteers spent time assisting in the build of the pier and boardwalk.

“We had some young, hardworking guys,” Skaugstad said. “They did a lot of hard work.”

The Sanibel Community Church, who adopted the Trailways Camp as their mission project, also provided volunteers for the project.

The pier also includes benches, built by a Sanibel resident, as well as shade canvases over the benches donated by the center.

“Now they can go fishing,” Skaugstad said.

A gate was also built by Skaugstad and placed at the front of the pier for easy access in case of an emergency.