History of

Hatched out of necessity

They built it, and they came. They came to the first "Ding" Darling Visitor Center, completed circa 1982, in droves -- 11,000 in the first month after the center opened. They came so eager to learn what the Refuge was about that they overwhelmed a staff unused to dealing with the inquisitive public.

That's how "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society (DDWS) came to be, born of sheer desperation.. In June 1982, the founding Board of Directors met with Refuge staff to establish the new Friends group. 
Bud Ryckman, Refuge volunteer and president of the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, stepped up to the challenge to take the helm. With him were William Frey, vice-president; Milena Eskew, secretary; Dan Kimpel, treasurer; Millie Ford, volunteer drive coordinator; Reed Toomey, legal counsel; and Reed Palmer, accounting consultant.
On October 6, 1982, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society was established when the Florida Secretary of State approved the articles of incorporation. Bud quickly went about soliciting more than $2,000 in donations to purchase books to sell in support of Refuge activities. Millie recruited and trained new volunteers to staff the information desk and help the refuge interpret the new exhibits.
The main topic of business at that first meeting was naming the group, according to Milena Eskew. "We thought '''Ding" Darling Wildlife Society' gave us some class."

By the next meeting in February 1983, volunteers had responded to the need in great numbers and with great enthusiasm, reported Millie Ford.

Spreading its wings

By 1999, DDWS had grown strong enough to build its own Education Center. It raised $3.3 million to finance the new building and its state-of-the-art exhibits. In the meantime, the volunteer corps has grown to 230 and has been recognized nationwide as the model for other refuge cooperating associations.

Nationally, the society has won several prestigious awards: The National Voluntary Service Award in 1991 from the National Recreation and Parks Association, the Friends Group of the Year in 1999 from the National Wildlife Refuge Association, and the Southeast Regional Directors Award in 2009 for its help with distributing funds for refuge employees who were affected by Hurricane Katrina.

In 2012, Lee County tourism awarded the Society its Chrysallis Award for Education, and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) bestowed upon the group its global Phoenix Award for conservation in tourism.

Membership ranks have swelled from that original board of seven in 1982 to some 1,400 today. The Society's support role for the Refuge has grown to include the financial support of interns, supporting new exhibits and trails, and advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C.

The Society's work continues in big and small ways to keep the Refuge running despite financial woes. To help in our important work and to become a member and a Friend of the Refuge, click here.

Society contributions

  • Will host the inaugural Upcycle! Art Fest on Sanibel Island in April 2014
  • Will be making significant Visitors Education Center improvements (including an elevator) and adding a sea turtle exhibit starting in 2014
  • Raised $1.4 million in 2013 for the Woodring Point land acquisition.
  • Raises funds for new exhibits and trail projects, which in 2012-2013 included the Wildlife Education Boardwalk,and Living Dinosaurs, Duck Decoy Art,and Marvelous Manatees exhibits in the Visitors Education Center
  • Supported the iNature Trail, Calusa Shell Mound Trail improvements, the reopening of Buck Key Paddling Trail, and other recent projects
  • Financially assisted with post-hurricane efforts to clean up Sanibel, Captiva, and the refuge after Hurricane Charley in 20014
  • Assisted refuge with plans and pilings for new, disabled-accessible observation tower and remote video camera
  • Spearheaded and financed the new $3.3-million Education Center and exhibits
  • Established a radio information system for visitors
  • Built the education pavilion on the Cross Dike Trail
  • Financially supports environmental education staff and the internship program
  • Operates the Refuge Nature Store and hosts annual free author lecture and film series
  • Organizes and funds the annual “Ding” Darling Days for environmental education and “Ding” Darling & Doc Ford’s Tarpon Tournament to promote responsible fishing ethics
  • Distributes $5,000 each year in conservation teacher grants to Lee County Schools
  • Awards conservation education scholarships annually to students in a five-county area pursuing college degrees in biology-related fields
  • Provides the refuge manager a discretionary fund for emergency use
  • Provides field trip busing for district students
  • Oversees archives and inventory of the “Ding” Darling Foundation
  • Supplies materials to area teachers
  • Provides informational materials for refuge visitors
  • Provides and maintains interpretative signage and outdoor kiosk displays
  • Supports studies including bird surveys, control burn monitoring, and water sampling
  • Contributes tens of thousands of dollars each year for special refuge projects
  • Maintains an informational Web site at www.dingdarlingsociety.org
  • Funds research projects
  • Represents the refuge system and its budget needs at a national political level