Sea turtles nesting, dolphins frolicking, birds wading and migrating—at any given moment, something naturally spectacular is happening in the over 400,000 acres of wildlife that make up the subtropical Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges.
From east to west, Crocodile Lake NWR, National Key Deer Refuge, Great White Heron NWR and Key West NWR are home to some of the world’s most endangered habitats, plants, and wildlife species. And for nearly twenty years, a group of volunteers has helped make certain that the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges retain their status as some of the most beautiful and unique natural resources in the world.
FAVOR— Friends And Volunteers Of Refuges— is the friends group to the refuges; their specific mission is to assist with recruiting volunteers, education and outreach, fundraising, and advocacy.
“FAVOR is a critical link in helping us conserve and protect the wildlife and habitats of our refuges,” says Ranger Kristie Killam. “They help communicate the issues to our visitors and residents, and they provide a call to action on numerous issues that include the importance of trash cleanups, building wildlife habitat, responsible pet ownership, ethical wildlife viewing, and sustainable living.”
They do this by supporting the many seasonal programs, activities, and events the refuges offer: Camp Run-A-Muk, a three-day adult “summer” camp held in January for residents; Rockin’ Refuge Rangers programs for kids on Saturdays during Feb and March; family-friendly walks and programs in the summer that include evening star and pollinator programs, and marsh rabbit rambles; and a refuge photography club with monthly field trips. All of the programs are free as a consequence of FAVOR’s support.
“Typically the National Wildlife System is not richly funded so the refuges rely on their friends groups like FAVOR for additional funding,” says author and designer Nancy Chatelaine, a six year FAVOR volunteer who manages the Key Deer Bookstore, FAVOR’s major fundraising effort.
They also rely on the dedication of its members to help sustain advocacy. FAVOR president Robert Keeley joined the refuges’ friends group 16 years ago to combat marine debris with allies after a life-changing experience with a loggerhead sea turtle he’d found in distress that eventually died from ingesting plastic.
“It was the most plastic Richie Moretti (from Marathon’s Turtle Hospital) had ever found inside a turtle, including a tooth brush, several pens, bits of plastic bags, a bag with tape, the insole of a shoe, plastic string, plastic strapping and lots and lots of less identifiable plastic and rubbery bits that filled the turtle’s digestive track and starved it to death,” says Keeley.
Keeley’s initiatives have helped develop cleanup programs that rally the support of other businesses and organizations. FAVOR’s latest contribution is co-sponsoring the upcoming “Outdoor Fest,” a four-day celebration of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge system that encourages people to get outside in an wildlife-friendly manner. The Fest, which spans the four wildlife refuges, features family-friendly, mostly free outdoor adventures and hands-on activities (expert guided birding and nature walks, art and photography workshops, kids programs, kayak excursions, historical and natural history bike rides, and the 2nd Annual Run With Deer 5K on Big Pine Key) and is set for March 17th through March 20th.
In the meantime, the refuges are always open to the support of new FAVOR members.
“Working with tourists in the Visitor Center, at the Key Deer Bookstore, the Blue Hole, trail maintenance, trash cleanups, outdoor activities or behind the scenes are just a few of the needs we currently have,” says Chatelaine.
Even if you can’t join as a member, there are other ways to support the refuges: participation in clean ups and work day projects, enjoying their many events and activities, shopping the Key Deer Bookstore, and, of course, registering for any of the events with the Outdoor Fest.
The Outdoor Fest is brought to you in part by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. To register and for more information about the refuges, FAVOR, and the list of events, visit www.favorfloridakeys.org/outdoor-fest or contact Kristie Killam at 305.304.9625, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.