Laura Stapleton brings a new sense of excitement to her role as a volunteer at the Welcome Desk. The native New Yorker rekindled a love of nature that started during her childhood and was sparked again when she moved to New Smyrna Beach.
Now in Florida, there were birds she wanted to identify and a sea turtle program in which she wanted to become involved. She also tapped into learning through the Florida Master Naturalist Program – all of which have helped make her a more helpful and knowledgeable volunteer.
Read about Laura in our December Volunteer Spotlight with MDC staff writer Lisa Mickey:
Q: Where did you grow up? A: I grew up in Sayville — a little town in Long Island, N.Y. It’s not unlike New Smyrna Beach, just not as close to the ocean. Instead of having a lagoon between the barrier island, we had a bay. It’s on the South Shore of Long Island.
Q: Did your love of nature come from living in Long Island? A: My dad was an avid outdoorsman. He was a hunter and a fisherman. He always ate what he got. They do a lot of duck hunting in Long Island, so if he shot a duck, that duck was eaten, and if not by our family, by the older gentleman who lived down the block who was grateful to have fresh food like that. My dad gave us a sense of environmental conservation. Little trips with my dad might include a visit to a fish hatchery.
Q: How long did you live there? A: I stayed there for most of my life and met my husband Mike almost right out of high school. We raised our kids in the same area and we’d go to the beach and to Fire Island. We taught our kids how to find clams in the sand using their feet. We’d bring along a cooler with cocktail sauce and open the clams on the boat and eat them right there. We tried to pass that on to our kids.
Q: Did you continue your education? A: I didn’t go to college. We made the decision for me to stay home and raise the kids. My daughter (Jennifer) is now 38 and my son (Chris) is 37. I was involved with their PTA and got busy with their school. My naturalist interests had to sort of go by the wayside. I would still take my kids surfcasting at the beach when the bluefish were running.
Q: How did you try to pass on to your kids what your dad taught you? A: I guess just by going to parks and being out in nature. We had a vegetable garden and we let them take turns burying the potato peelings back in the garden. I remember my Greek grandmother saying to me, “You take from the earth, you give back to the earth.” She was composting in the early days.
Q: Did you work during the time your kids were young? A: My husband Mike worked as an operations manager for a company in the transportation industry. He’s still working and commutes back to New York for one week each month. Before we moved down here, I ran my own business — called Custom Office Systems — out of my home. I did medical transcriptions for 10 years, transcribing doctors’ notes. Once I transcribed a book for a psychologist. I also had an architect as a client and I would type up his proposals. At that time, there was a need for someone to transcribe tapes because people still used tape recorders.
Q: When did you move to New Smyrna Beach? And why NSB? A: That started probably 20-25 years ago. I have family in St. Augustine. Mike and I took a road trip and left the kids with their grandparents. We came here about six years ago and stumbled on Flagler Avenue just by chance. We thought, “What a cool place!” We never in a million years thought we would live here. We had a house in The Villages as an investment, but we sold that house and just went on vacations to Florida. We explored the west coast, the east coast and the Keys. The west coast of Florida was beautiful, but it just didn’t feel right, so we drove straight across the state and stayed at the Best Western in New Smyrna Beach. We walked down to Flagler Avenue and it was a little after 5 p.m. We walked into a real estate office, found a waterfront condo on Bouchelle Island and the next day, we signed a contract to buy. We would take family vacations here, but all the while, we were working toward selling the boat, selling the camper and selling our house in New York so we could move down here.
Q: How did you learn about the Marine Discovery Center? A: I didn’t know a soul in this town, but one day in November, I ended up at the Marine Discovery Center. I didn’t just want to sit at home, so I went to the history museum and then I came here and asked about volunteering. They had just held the volunteer orientation the day before, but someone at the Welcome Desk pulled me over and showed me the Florida Master Naturalist Program flier for the class. She told me the classes fill up fast. I read the information and that little seed that my dad had planted years ago came back that day. I signed up for the next class in February.
Q: Did you start volunteering at MDC that fall? A: No. The holidays came and I got busy. Something I had always wanted to do was to volunteer with the Turtle Trackers. My passion is sea turtles and that group monitors during the nesting season. Mike and I were at Smyrna Dunes Park one day and there was a Turtle Trackers flier with those little tear-off phone numbers and information about how they monitor the area’s sea turtles. That was something for me to do, almost as soon as I had moved here.
Q: So did you start volunteering with the Turtle Trackers right away? A: No, I contacted them and they said I had to apply in January. Meanwhile, in February, the Florida Master Naturalist Coastal class ended on a Friday and the Turtle Trackers started the next day on a Saturday. I got very fired up by that class. It felt like summer camp for grownups, especially taking the Coastal module class.
Q: Being new in town, did this give you an instant way to find like-minded people? A: Yes! When you take the Coastal class, MDC orientation is built into the class, so during our last class, I went to the Welcome Desk and wrote a check to cover my background screening as a volunteer at the Marine Discovery Center. That’s how it started, but even before I moved to New Smyrna, I just felt like I belonged here. This is the right place for me.
Q: What are your volunteer duties at MDC? A: I work at the Welcome Desk each Wednesday morning. After having done medical transcriptions for 10 years, I had to become very detail oriented, so I think that has helped me with the variety of tasks we have at the Welcome Desk.
Q: What do you enjoy most about volunteering at MDC? A: I like working with the people and explaining the exhibits. I was docent trained, so when people come into the center and have questions, I can answer their questions. I tell people about the Florida Master Naturalist classes and I tell the public that we have something for everyone – from toddlers to adults. I have gone out on the boat with the education programs. I also help out with the Master Naturalist classes, just to volunteer as an extra set of hands with the staff.
Q: Have you taken all of the Florida Master Naturalist classes offered? A: I’ve taken all but one of the classes to get the Advanced Master Naturalist certification. I only need the Habitat Evaluation class.
Q: Volunteering requires a lot of time and you could be doing other things. What brings you back each time? A: I am so happy when I leave here. My kids are grown. My husband is a homebody and I’m not, and that’s difficult at times. I want to be out doing something. Being here gets me out of the house and I love it!
Q: Do you volunteer at other places in town? A: Yes, but I think my favorite place is the Marine Discovery Center because you see the same people. We’re all like-minded on a regular basis, whereas the other things I do are seasonal, such as with the sea turtle nesting program. I think what I truly enjoy are the people. I’m just a people person. This was my second year with the Turtle Trackers program and this was the first year I got to do the morning surveys and build the barriers. I had to volunteer and fund raise the first year. We also went to summer camps and gave talks to kids about sea turtles. In addition, I volunteer with ‘Cudas Unhooked. There is a house in the community that was built for at-risk high school students. Some kids live there and other kids can go there and have a quiet place to do their homework. It’s located near the high school and is totally funded by the community. Some of my friends and I threw them an Easter party and we bake them cookies at Christmas. Some of my friends serve as mentors or drive them to and from their part-time jobs.
Q: Did you volunteer in your home state? A: I used to volunteer for Boots On The Ground, a non-profit organization in New York. They assist homeless veterans when they are going into housing. The Veterans Administration will get them housing, but the veterans might not have a bed and they might need money to heat their house in the winter. Boots On The Ground runs a food pantry and they hold a Thanksgiving turkey drive. It’s a wonderful organization and I was sad to leave it because I knew that if I gave $100 to that organization, $100 would go to the veterans. The entire organization is volunteer-operated. I still give whenever I can.
Q: How about your hobbies when you’re not volunteering? A: I have a brand new hobby. I’m a sea bean collector now. The last hurricane came and washed over a lot of our sea turtle nests. One day, a sea heart washed right in front of me. I did not know much about them at the time, but in the last Florida Master Naturalist Coastal class, a speaker came in and talked about sea beans and it really sparked my interest.
Q: What has been the highlight for you at MDC? A: I just like getting out on the water. That’s why I’d like to do more with MDC’s education program and the Florida Master Naturalist program. I don’t know that I’ll ever be a narrator on the boat, but maybe some day. Right now, I prefer the hands-on education we offer here.
Q: What excites you the most about being a part of MDC’s mission to educate others about the Indian River Lagoon? A: I just like being involved in something that’s good for my soul. Even if I’m just emptying the garbage at an event that is teaching people about what we do here, I feel like I am a small part of something really great.
Q: Have you changed in some way as you have become more environmentally focused? A: My family will tell you I am now a nature snob. I’m trying to get my husband not to use fertilizer on our yard. One of those companies comes to our house and applies their product twice year. I’m trying to get him to eliminate that. He’s getting better, but the company talked him into spraying for mosquitos and I came home to somebody fogging all of my bushes and I went nuts! I told my husband they were killing all the butterflies and bees. I can’t save the world, but I can do my little part. I can save my yard. I want the butterflies and I want the bees! There are compromises, but I can see my family coming around in little bits.
Q: As you have become more involved at MDC and learned more, what is your view of our ecosystem here? A: Absolutely. There is another master naturalist in my small group of friends. I try to get others involved and interested. It has become like a family here at MDC and if the weeds need pulling, everybody’s out there — from the executive director to the volunteers. Everybody pitches in and does what needs to be done and that’s how things change and improve.