Understanding the value of water
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In this issue
Hundreds share their time and energy on district projects and enrich its core mission in a variety of ways.
Amendment One funding helps to expand restoration work at several district projects.
Once a major restoration project is completed, the work continues as the district begins long-term maintenance.
District staff shine through Hurricane Matthew.
Lavon Silvernell holds one of the acorns she planted at the Lake Apopka North Shore property.
Volunteers enrich the district’s mission
By Ed Garland
Shielded from the sun by a floppy woven hat and sensible white gardening duds, Lavon Silvernell drops an acorn into a hole she’s dug into the sandy soil and tamps the spot down with her foot.
On this particular morning, Silvernell and another volunteer, Dan Cleary, are helping St. Johns River Water Management District Land Management Specialist Rosi Mulholland sow the proverbial seeds of future oak trees at a sandhill and pine scrub restoration site near Lake Apopka.
Silvernell, who lives in nearby Astatula — a speck of a town whose name, she says, means “sparkle on the water” — views volunteerism as a kind of mental therapy, an affirmation of hope in a rapidly changing world.
“I don’t believe we can simply put the world on a dialysis machine,” Silvernell says, her eyes momentarily misty. “Rather than get angry or depressed, I take action. Volunteerism is my antidote.”
Silvernell isn’t alone in her need to give back to her community. Throughout the district’s 18-county jurisdiction, hundreds of Floridians donate their time, expertise and energy to the agency in a variety of ways. In 2016, more than 200 people contributed approximately 1,700 hours planting trees, blazing trails, counting endangered birds, cleaning trash and educating their communities about wildfire prevention.
St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle says she is both thrilled and amazed by the scope of the volunteer movement in the district and the cross-forging of relationships between district staff, volunteers and local communities.
“Our agency is fortunate and grateful for the hundreds of volunteers whose energy and passion benefits the district — and really, the public at large — in so many ways. Including volunteers in our mission builds relationships between the district and residents and fosters community support for our programs and projects, particularly on district lands.”
— District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle
“Our agency is fortunate and grateful for the hundreds of volunteers whose energy and passion benefits the district — and really, the public at large — in so many ways,” Shortelle says. “Including volunteers in our mission builds relationships between the district and residents and fosters community support for our programs and projects, particularly on district lands.”
In many cases, volunteers are retirees seeking to share a lifetime of accumulated knowledge or skills. Silvernell, for example, is a 35-year veteran of the Florida Native Plant Society, president of the Beautyberry Chapter of the Native Plant Society and a naturalist at the Trout Lake Nature Center in Eustis. She can identify the genus and species of a native plant as effortlessly as she breathes the morning air.
Fellow acorn planter Dan Cleary, a Clermont resident, can best be described as a jack-of-all-trades volunteer. His contributions have ranged from helping to post signs, to clearing hiking trails to repairing picnic tables.
“My best experience with the district was checking owl boxes,” Cleary says. “I got to operate the camera and view the owlets. That was pretty neat.”
Cleary’s contributions aren’t limited to district endeavors. He has logged more than 9,000 volunteer hours with Florida State Parks, worked on the Florida Scrub-Jay Trail and helped build a new facility for Forest Animal Rescue.
What drives Cleary? Perhaps he’s making up for lost time. “I spent 30 years behind a desk as an administrator for the Michigan Department of Social Services,” he says. “The last 14 years, I’ve been outdoors, enjoying every minute of it.”
Collectively, volunteers can provide a formidable temporary work force on large-scale projects that might otherwise present a logistical challenge to district staff.
In June 2016, for example, more than 50 community volunteers helped plant 1,000 bald cypress trees at the district’s Lake Apopka North Shore. Cherry Lake Tree Farm in Groveland worked with local nonprofit Keep Lake Beautiful to donate the trees and help raise awareness about the importance of the area’s natural systems.
“In addition to providing food for wildlife and nesting habitats, these trees will provide shade for visitors for many years to come,” Shortelle says. “We were grateful for an opportunity to partner once again with the community on a project that celebrates our shared recognition of the value of a unique area.”
Other examples of community support include volunteers who gather each month to survey butterflies at Lake Apopka and assist in counting Florida scrub-jays as part of a statewide survey annually at Lake Monroe and Buck Lake conservation areas. Volunteers have also helped build boardwalks on district lands and regularly assist with educational presentations at school and community events.
Managing volunteers and having a successful ongoing volunteer program takes a real commitment on an agency’s part, says Nels Parson, a district land manager. He also coordinates with the Florida Trails Association on projects where the Florida Natural Scenic Trail traverses district lands.
Parson knows from experience that managing volunteers is a job in itself. Over the years, he has helped Eagle Scouts earn badges by coordinating projects for them that have included constructing trail footbridges, trail benches, campsite improvements, equestrian rider mounting steps, brochure boxes and kiosk construction.
“Four of the most common false assumptions most administrations make concerning volunteers are thinking that managing volunteers is easy, anyone can do it, volunteers are free and that it doesn’t require much staff time,” he says. “Successful volunteer programs, as a rule, require recruitment, training, logistics, equipment and recognition of those who contribute their time and energy.”
District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle, governing board members and district staff celebrate with Mary Prescott of Orlando (center) at a 2016 governing board meeting at which Prescott was honored for her volunteer service.
Award honors volunteer’s service to wildfire education
Sometimes the district indirectly benefits from volunteer contributions to outside programs.
Such is the case with Mary Prescott of Orlando, the district’s 2016 recipient of the Bob Owens Award for volunteer service. Prescott received the award for her service to her local Firewise Program, a national program that emphasizes community involvement and educates residents on ways to reduce the risk of wildland fire igniting homes.
“We’re proud to celebrate Ms. Prescott’s dedication to the community through the Firewise Program. She has been a true partner and conduit for community education and feedback,” says St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle. “By working together, we are taking a proactive approach to help protect homes and land from wildfire.”
Since 2001, Prescott has served as the Firewise chairperson for the Wedgefield community in Orange County. Under her leadership, the program garnered strong support not only from the district and her homeowner’s association, but also from the Florida Forest Service, Orange County Fire and Rescue, Orange County Environmental Protection Division, and the University of Florida Orange County Cooperative Extension Service.
Prescott says she was honored to receive the award. “It is not a matter of if a wildfire will affect our community, but when,” she says. “Education and mitigation are our main goals; we are able to accomplish these goals by our partnerships with many local agencies and the support of the Wedgefield residents.”
In addition to Wedgefield, the district also partners with Firewise communities in Flagler and Brevard counties to discuss wildfire safety and to review prescribed burn plans for nearby district-owned lands.
The district award is named for the late Bob Owens of Ormond Beach, a vocal supporter of environmental programs who attended nearly every District Governing Board meeting from the mid-1970s until his death in 1991.