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Ding Summer Camp1

People seldom realize that there are thousands of children here in Southwest Florida who have never seen the ocean, despite living so very close to it.  Due to shrinking school budgets and other economic circumstances, these children never get a chance to experience the natural wonders found just over the Causeway. Thankfully, there are many groups from Sanibel trying to help, including our friends over at “Ding” Darling.

We wanted to pass along a recent article, written by Jeff Lysiak, from the “Island Sun”:

With a mission of bringing youngsters into the outdoors and inspiring them to learn more about protecting the environment and wildlife, the Nature Explorers Day Camp at the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel – for the second consecutive summer – has done exactly that.

Launched in 2015, the refuge’s first- ever day camp program – geared towards middle school students attending Title 1 schools who might not otherwise be able to afford attending a weeklong camp – was made possible through a $15,000 grant from an anonymous donor to the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge (DDWS). The donation covers the cost of lunch and transportation for day campers, scholarships, T-shirts, digital cameras and other program materials. A donation from the Gardner families helped purchase backpacks for the campers. Tarpon Bay Explorers also assists with water-related activities.

Weekly activities include nature photography, wildlife observation, saltwater fishing, kayaking, a beach walk, nature sketching, archery, biking and nature-minded craft projects.

Last Wednesday afternoon, participants in the Nature Explorers Camp visited Bunche Beach on Fort Myers Beach, taking a stroll along a seemingly barren shoreline during low tide. However, upon closer inspection, the shallow tidal pool-riddled beachfront was bursting with life.

“We’re going to be doing some seine-netting along the mud flats here on the beach,” said camp leader and refuge ranger Leigh Gay. “You’d be surprised to see how much there is to see in these tidal pools.”

Five minutes after arriving at the beach and hiking across the mud flats, several campers gathered around Gay, who had discovered a juvenile horseshoe crab travelling through the shallows.

“Be very careful,” she told the youngsters, eager to inspect the marine critter up close. “It will crawl across your hands… and it’s not going to bite.”

Soon, small groups of campers explored several points along the shoreline. Some headed towards the water to search for fish; a few more began using their seine nets to get a closer look at crabs and live shells found inside the tidal pools; while others found a place along the mangrove forest to sit, relax and enjoy the view.

Earlier in the day, campers visited Gulfside City Park on Sanibel to do a little shelling and sealife exploration. Back at the refuge, the youngsters also took part in a shellcraft activity.

Throughout the six-week camp, participants engaged in a number of environmentally focused activities including:

• Wildlife observation and photography along Wildlife Drive

• Biking in the refuge, from the Observation Tower to the Indigo Trail

• Beach hiking and shelling at Gulfside City Park

• Tarpon Bay Explorers boat and kayak fishing

• Impoundment fishing within the refuge

“The refuge feels that our Nature Explorers Day Camp fills an urgent need in our community,” said ranger Becky Larkins, who oversees the program as Refuge Education Specialist. “Existing day camps fill quickly, so we felt we could provide an excellent alternative that gets kids out in nature. By targeting Title 1 schools, we hope to reach children who cannot otherwise afford summer camps.”

The Monday-through-Friday day camp ends on August 5.

A number of free activities at the refuge – including a Family Beach Walk (Fridays at 9 a.m.), Indigo Trail Walk (Thursday art 10 a.m.), Reading in the Refuge (Wednesdays at 10 a.m.) and Wildlife Wonders (Saturdays at 11 a.m.) – continue through the summer months. Free programs are also offered at the Visitor & Education Center, open seven days per week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wildlife Drive is closed on Fridays to vehicular traffic. For additional information, visit or call 239-472-1100.

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