|Jane Hanks and Martha Ryckman and their pelican friend welcome visitors to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel.|
FORT MYERS – As area residents know, the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is one of the most visited refuges in the nation, with almost a million visitors annually. Last winter, the refuge celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of their volunteer program. At their volunteer recognition lunch, four local people were honored for giving 20 years of service to the refuge, and three out of the four – Jane Hanks, Martha Ryckman, and Milena Eskew – live at Shell Point! At 20 years apiece, these three ladies have given 60 years of service to the refuge!
Thanks to the formation of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society in 1982, the volunteer program began as one of the many ways the society provides support and services to the refuge. The society became one of the first refuge friends groups to organize as an independent nonprofit association, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and supports services for the thousands of visitors to the “Ding” Darling Refuge each year.
When Bud and Martha Ryckman first moved from Detroit to Sanibel in 1975, Bud was the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society’s first president and a real driving force. Martha was a teacher and director at the Children’s Center of the Islands for over ten years, as well as one of the refuge’s first volunteers. “When I was at the Children’s Center, Bud would come and show his bird slides and talk about saving the birds,” she recalls. “The children loved it.”
The Ryckmans helped Sanibel Elementary develop the original Junior Duck Stamp project and in 1989, the Junior Duck Stamp program began nationally for all student artists to compete. State winners eventually compete for Best of Show from entries across the U.S. and the honor of having their image printed on the Junior Duck Stamp. The program encourages young artists to learn about wildlife and helps raise the visibility of waterfowl conservation, as well as raising money for the Wildlife Federation.
Today at 82, Martha doesn’t spend as many hours at the Education Center desk as she once did, but she still feels close to the refuge and is proud of what the society has accomplished in 20 years. “People interaction is the best thing about the job,” says Martha. “To be able to tell them stories and facts about the refuge is a way to enhance their nature experience and enrich their lives – it’s wonderful!”
In 1983, when Jane Hanks signed on as a refuge volunteer, there were only eight others in the corps. “A staff person placed me at the front desk and assigned my (late) husband, Don, as a rover,” said Jane. Twenty years later, Jane still works the desk at the Education Center every Saturday afternoon during season. As a former librarian, Jane found her niche at the desk. Though she may not know all the answers to questions visitors pose, she does know how to find them. “I do enjoy meeting people,” says Jane. “If I can do anything to enrich their visit, it greatly enriches my life.” Her most common question? “Where are the alligators (and/or) where are the restrooms?” Those are the easy ones!
“One does what one enjoys doing,” said Milena Eskew, when asked about the 20 years she spent involved with the refuge. “Thanks to Bud Ryckman, I was involved in the Ding Darling Wildlife Society from the very beginning. He started the organization while I was working with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Society – but he was so compelling, he got me interested. I saw great opportunities to do some new things, and I’m still involved today!” On the original Board of Directors (now an Emeritus), Milena bills herself as “an idea person.” A whiz at fundraising for the refuge, as well as the Audubon Society and an ongoing Everglades restoration project, she’s been instrumental in many of the new ideas at the Refuge (such as the bookstore, which she began in a corner with three shelves).
When she saw an original “Ding” cartoon hanging at the ‘Tween Waters Inn, she came up with the idea of having a museum at the refuge, and searched island-wide for Darling “artifacts.” Later, it was her idea to change the museum to an educational center, in order to garner more donations. Today’s beautiful Educational Center and Gift Shop/Bookstore are just one of the legacies of her fertile mind and can-do attitude. “If you don’t succeed with a project, just go open another door for the next one,” she said. “When you get older, you have no fear of failure like youngsters do – I was always adventurous and I still am – why stop now?” And after 55 years spent on Sanibel as a schoolteacher, interior designer, fundraiser, world traveler, and seminar speaker, you just know there’s lots more to come!