Diane Yeaton is one of the most veteran volunteers at the Marine Discovery Center, and the New Englander has been instrumental in the center’s growth, starting back in the early 2000s.
Whether she was answering telephones at the center, leading fundraising efforts or serving on MDC’s board of directors, she has worn many hats over the years. For her service and deep dedication, the center’s education classroom was named in her honor.
Read more about Diane in MDC’s April 2021 Volunteer Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa Mickey:
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Coventry, R.I., which is in the southwestern part of the state. I lived there until we moved to Florida in 2002. We started vacationing in New Smyrna Beach in 1995. When we decided to retire, we moved right in and never looked back.
Q: Why New Smyrna Beach?
A: My aunt lived here. We visited her quite a few times and liked the area. My husband Paul and I come from a small town. Actually the same neighborhood. We lived close to the ocean, so New Smyrna was the perfect place for us to move to.
Q: When did you retire and what did you do in your career?
A: I retired in 2001 as the administrative assistant to the CEO of a manufacturing firm in Rhode Island. I had been with the firm for 35 years.
Q: That’s a big change from the busy life of working for a CEO to retirement in a small coastal town. How was that for you?
A: I was a duck out of water. I was so used to working in a fast paced, demanding environment. It was a family-owned company and I absolutely loved working there, but it was time to retire. Paul retired in 2002. He worked in I.T. for several companies. After we moved here and renovated our house, I got bored. I needed to channel my energy.
Q: Are you competitive boaters at Smyrna Yacht Club?
A: No. We belong there for the social life. We live on a canal and our power boat is on a lift in the back yard. Paul and I enjoy boating and I love to go kayaking. We also love to play golf.
Q: What did you study in school?
A: I had a business course in school, but my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college and there was no way I could get the funding for it. So, when I got out of high school, I started working for the company where I spent the rest of my career. Before I got married, I went to Europe for an entire summer and contemplated moving to France. We have extended family there. French was my first language. I learned English when I started school.
Q: How did you start volunteering?
A: One of the most heart-warming things I have done was volunteering at the first Rhode Island Cerebral Palsy Special Olympics. The son of one of the men I worked for had cerebral palsy and was severely disabled. Actually he founded the organization in Rhode Island. My job was to help coordinate the opening and closing ceremonies, and to recruit volunteers to help with the needs of the athletes throughout the 3day event.
Q: How did you get involved at MDC?
A: I took a master gardener course and a woman in my class, Sandi Sturge, was from New Smyrna Beach. We drove to the class together and I was telling her one day that I needed to do some volunteer work. A few years before that, I had seen an MDC booth at one of the street festivals. They had some brochures and I thought that it might be an interesting place to volunteer. When I got involved MDC had just moved from the former sewage treatment plant to the old Connor Library across from City Hall.
Q: That is a lot different from working in a corporate setting. What did you like about it?
A: The people. Everyone was so welcoming and pleased that I wanted to volunteer in any way I could. The friends I made in those early days are still good friends of mine. Chad [Truxall, MDC’s executive director] also was there. I started volunteering in 2004 and Chad was leading MDC’s summer camp that year.
Q: What were your duties at MDC?
A: I answered the phones at the Welcome Desk and helped with fund raising. When we got the two portable offices donated on the North Causeway site, they needed to be painted and connected with a deck, so I found someone who could do those things. I had one volunteer who was in construction, so I was able to form a group of volunteers who put the deck together, linking the classroom and MDC’s offices. We held rummage sales, bake sales, hotdog roasts and did various things to raise funds for MDC. Sometime around 2006, we started the Tailgate’n Party — an annual fundraiser during the NFL playoffs. We held that until 2015 and got local donations of food, wine and beer and we’d set up big TVs. The community would reserve tables and come watch the football playoffs and enjoy all of the donations from restaurants. We also held an annual Luau and Silent Auction of paintings donated by the Artists’ Workshop with the former local restaurant “Flip Flops” to raise funds for MDC, which was very popular. We did that for four years.
Q: When did you become chairman of the board at MDC?
A: I was chair from 2006-2016. The chairman before me was Nelson Cambata and he had to step away from the board because of time constraints with his business. He appointed me to be the chair, along with the rest of the board.
Q: It must have been interesting to be there in the beginning when MDC was just starting to take form.
A: I absolutely loved it! I was accustomed to leading fund raisers for local charities because that was part of my job when I was a paid employee. It was challenging and we needed money, but it was not a burden. I enjoyed being a part of it all as we were trying to build an organization and turn it into a business. I still love it.
Q: What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
A: It’s very satisfying. When you’re volunteering, you’re doing it for a purpose. Whether it’s an effort to raise a lot of money or to help other individuals, as was the case with cerebral palsy, it helps the organization grow. I enjoy using the skills that I have. I’m a “detail person” and I feel that I have good organizational skills. When I was still working, I had my hands in a lot of things throughout the years. That company was small when I started, so I had to help with various parts of it, such as marketing and advertising.
Q: Talk about the growth you have seen at MDC during your time here.
A: Things didn’t start to really pop here until we moved into this building in August 2011. Prior to that, the Discovery boat needed new pontoons. We had no money, but we were convinced that if we reached out to the community for help, we would get the funds to do it. We were told it would probably take us two years. Well, we started raising money in February and by August, we had a new boat. The turning point is when we moved into the former New Smyrna Beach High School building. When you’re in blue portable buildings that look like they’re falling apart, people are leery about donating. It was like night and day to have a building with bricks and mortar. Once we were there, the community knew we weren’t going to stay.
Q: And when MDC moved into the new building, we thought we had so much space!
A: And now, we’re bursting at the seams! I remember the times as board chair, certainly well before we moved, when we only had two or three paid staff and struggled to make payroll.
Q: There was also a period of time when MDC was running the NSB Water Taxi. How did that fit in?
A: It was a mixed blessing. We were in the blue portables at the time. The city of New Smyrna Beach needed a nonprofit to run the water taxi. It had nothing to do with our mission, but we needed the money and it worked out well. It brought us visibility and people loved it. We got very involved with the Marine Science Center because we put injured birds on the boat to take them up to their bird hospital. It was a wonderful thing for the community and I think people miss the water taxi, but it was not profitable. I believe we did that for from 2006 to 2010.
Q: During this time, MDC was expanding education, camps, kayaking, boat tours, exhibits and different programs. Talk about how challenging and exciting that was.
A: The boat tours were easy because guests really enjoyed them. Especially the Sunset Wine & Cheese Tour! Kayaking became very popular. I wasn’t involved with education, but the camps were getting more popular all the time and there was a great camaraderie because at the end of the camps – back when we were still in the blue portables – on the last day of camp, we would have a hotdog roast or pizza party and we’d get to meet the kids and junior counselors. Many of the counselors went on to study science in college.
Q: That was also the beginning of the oyster restoration program when MDC was located in the portable units on the North Causeway.
A: Yes. We received a grant which gave us the opportunity to hire Thad, who helped with the restoration work for about 2-3 years.
Q: What amazes you the most about the way MDC has grown?
A: I never believed we would reach the point where we would have to close our doors permanently. Coming from a coastal state, I know it’s important that you have clean water and a healthy place where the fish, dolphin, manatees and other sea creatures can live. Part of me feared we weren’t going to make it and another part of me said, “Of course we’re going to make it!” We scraped for every nickel and dime. If we had a fund raiser and made $300, that was wonderful.
Q: MDC had not really explored corporate partnerships at that stage.
A: True, and we were a very small group that needed credibility. We had to get the movers and shakers in our community who believed in us and who believed in what we were trying to do to help us financially. We always had a lot of volunteers, but our growth was slow because we didn’t have any seed money. What I like so much about MDC is that everyone has always been passionate about what we’re doing and what we want to accomplish.
Q: In the last half-dozen years, there have been a lot of changes on MDC’s campus, ranging from restoring a salt marsh to building an amphitheater.
A: We have grown tremendously and our future is bright. It just makes my heart smile.
Q: When did you step away from MDC’s board of directors?
A: That was in 2016. I had served three, three-year terms which was the maximum according to the By-Laws. I continued to serve as Chair of the Fund Development Committee and in 2019 I was asked to serve on the board again. In 2020 I was elected Board Secretary.
Q: How is the board different now from the early days?
A: We have directors who have retired from major companies that are bringing their knowledge and expertise to us which has greatly strengthened our board.
Q: How does a board shape a small non-profit organization?
A: They shape it in terms of the knowledge and expertise they can bring to the organization. Our board members bring in donors and reach out to the people they know who would be interested in us and can potentially invest in the Marine Discovery Center. They expand our network. We needed a board member with a strong marketing background and we have that now. We also have a board member in the medical profession who helped us deaI with the pandemic. His employer, Advent Health, is now a sponsor at MDC, which opens us up to all the employees of the Advent Health family.
Q: How do you feel about contributing to MDC’s mission in the community?
A: Coming from a coastal state, it is extremely gratifying to me to be part of an organization that is passionate about the environment and the Indian River Lagoon. I am so pleased to be a part of it.
Q: Is MDC a place where education can truly play a role?
A: Absolutely, especially with the children. I have friends whose grandchildren came to our summer camps. The grandson of one particular friend was having a birthday party with balloons. He told them they shouldn’t have balloons and they shouldn’t release them “because they could land in the water and the sea turtles will choke and die”. Although they lived inland the child insisted on no balloons. That is a small part of a what has to be instilled into the minds of the little ones and we’re doing that.
Q: What has been the highlight of volunteering at MDC?
A: I think moving into the new building. When we did that, I felt we had finally turned the corner – we’re going to make it.
Q: What did it mean to you to be honored with the naming of MDC’s education classroom as the Diane Yeaton Classroom?
A: It meant a lot! I had no idea they were going to do that and it touched my heart. It is very gratifying that some of my knowledge and experience made a difference at MDC. I’m not as physically involved in fund raising anymore because we have a great staff and volunteers who are doing a wonderful job, but in the early years, we all wore many hats.
Q: Is there anything else you want to do here at MDC?
A: I’m happy doing what I can. There’s always something new and exciting going on. Our public exposure is increasing. Substantial donations are being made to the Marine Discovery Center to continue on its mission. It’s a happy place to be!