Visitors to our beautiful beaches are arriving daily to enjoy the area many of us call home.
Some of them may come here often and are familiar with the lay of the land, but this might be a first time for some, and they may have questions about the area.
Walton County's new Volunteer Beach Ambassadors are ready to help.
Laurie Reichenbach, who formed the Beach Ambassador group last year, simply pulled from the large group of residents who are out on the beach daily to become Volunteer Beach Ambassadors.
So far, 49 adult and three Junior Volunteer Beach Ambassadors have been trained and shirted, and are out doing what Beach Ambassadors do.
"We tell our VBAs that this is the most flexible volunteer job possible," said Reichenbach. "Each VBA chooses his or her own route, area, length of walk, and time they choose to be active. We just ask them to wear the shirt when they go to the part of the beach that they usually visit and do what they normally do -- walk, sit, etc. We ask that they be open and engage with others when wearing the shirt.
"Be friendly, smile, give a nod of acknowledgement, a warm greeting, engage in conversation, and answer questions when approached," she added. "After answering a question, then add an educational tidbit of information, such as the importance of filling in holes before leaving the beach. We are available to help and provide information about beach flags, shore birds, marine life, Coastal Dune Lakes, sea turtles, beach mice and gopher tortoise."
Reichenbach said VBAs will also spread South Walton Turtle Watch's message of keeping the beach #CleanDarkFlat, carrying out what you bring in, and flattening sand castles at the end of the day.
Volunteers will also carry sand buckets to hold trash they pick up, to help fill in holes and flatten sand castles that are left.
"I think that any time you have people who want to volunteer their time and talents to an organization or cause is a good thing," said District 4 County Commissioner Sara Comander. "I am sure most, if not all of these volunteers live in Walton County and were probably tourists here before it became their home. This gives them a unique understanding of our beaches. Personal knowledge and experience is a valuable tool."
This year, the training session is required to earn a shirt and volunteer with the group.
Two training sessions have already been conducted and Reichenbach plans to have monthly training through high season.
The sessions are two and a half hours long and include speakers from the Walton County Sheriff's Office, South Walton Fire District, lifeguards, Walton County Code Enforcement, Beach Maintenance and South Walton Turtle Watch.
The Junior VBA program is new this year and Reichenbach will be assessing how well it works.
Children 16 and under may attend training with a parent who is then shirted and becomes the official VBA and must accompany the child when they go out on the beaches to act as a Junior VBA.
If a child is 17-18, they may attend training with a signed parental permission slip, complete the course, receive a shirt, and volunteer on the beaches independent of a parent.
For kids who want to do this for school-approved volunteer hours, they can earn a note showing how many hours they have put in over the course of the season.
Ambassadors will mostly walk the beach, but they may also be seen at beach accesses and on hiking/biking trails.
"We hope to recruit more volunteers," said Reichenbach.
During VBA's 2016 fall debut, they had a total of 48 shirted volunteers. Reichenbach anticipates having more than 100 VBAs by May.
Volunteers began walking March 6 and will continue through Oct. 31.
Training sessions will be held March 15, April 12 and May 10 at Coastal Branch Library from 6:30-9 p.m. An additional, 17 adults and one Junior VBA are signed up for the March 15 training.
"We anticipate more to register before the meeting," she said.
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