October 25, 2014

Acts of Kindness

For Pamela Williams, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida is a family affair. Her grandparents, the late Ruth and Lloyd Coffin, gave Williams and her husband, Roger, a membership to the organization for Christmas when Roger began his medical practice in Naples in 1973. She credits Conservancy camps and outings for awakening a spirit of environmental passion in her children, Heidi and Conrad, now in their 20s. But these days, the 40-year-old nonprofit is benefiting from Willams' activism.

"Pamela is a dream board member," says Rob Moher, director of development for the Conservancy. Chair of the development committee and a member of at least seven others, Williams gives at least 40 hours a week to the nonprofit, Moher says, doing everything from proofreading brochures to writing grant proposals. Moher and the rest of the staff particularly treasure Williams' long-term perspective on the organization and the thoughtful way in which she's helped them maintain ties with its past.

Williams, who grew up on the water in Massachusetts, first visited the area 45 years ago. Besides swimming in the Gulf, which she still does year-round, she remembers walking across Doctors Pass to go shelling with her grandmother. In a town where everyone knew everyone, the Coffins were friends of the original founders of the Conservancy, who made national news in the 1960s by fighting for slow growth when a proposed road through the Ten Thousand Islands threatened the Rookery Bay mangrove estuary.

"This was a handful of people sitting on Lester Norris' dock," Williams says. "To have Rookery Bay today be a national estuarine research reserve is a huge accomplishment."

In fact, Williams says, the 6,000-member Conservancy, with its 700 active volunteers, accomplishes so much that it's hard for most people-including her-to comprehend it all. Visitors taking a nature cruise don't necessarily know about Conservancy programs in the schools, and the Conservancy's scientists are less familiar to many than the friendly faces at the wildlife center.

Williams displays her own near-wonkish enthusiasm by working with the group's environmental specialists, visiting restoration projects in Lee County and eastern Collier County, where the Conservancy helped preserve 55,000 acres of land. But the wildlife center is special to her. Recently Williams showed up there with a pelican she and her husband had rescued from the bay behind their Port Royal home; she held the bird as staff members removed the fishing wire tangled around it. For years, she has been the mouse-buying fairy godmother for Morris, the blind owl who's been a center resident for decades.

In 2002, she and family friend John Gridley established an endowment for the wildlife center and the Caregivers Memorial Dedication site in honor of Gridley's wife, Melissa; when John Gridley passed away this summer, many gave to the endowment in his name. Rob Moher says Williams is the primary reason the endowment has reached $400,000.

Williams' latest cause is the Conservancy's expanded role in Lee County. "[Conservancy CEO] Kathy [Prosser] likes to say that environmental issues don't stop at county lines," Williams says. "After Hurricane Charley, what was coming through the Caloosahatchee ended up here in the Gulf of Mexico."

Williams is also impressed with Matt Bixler, who mans the Conser-vancy's Lee County office, and wants to get the word out about his efforts.

"I'm a strong supporter of the idea that one person can make a difference," says Williams. "There are things like hurricanes that you don't have control over, but there are also choices sitting right in front of you. That's when you want good staff who can go before the county government and talk about why certain actions are important."

Ensuring the environmental health of the region isn't a matter of shutting the door to newcomers, she insists. Instead, it involves educating them about why species protection is important; why non-native plants are a bad idea; and how, if it weren't for the Conservancy, the mangrove-lined paths to the beaches wouldn't exist. Most people respond to that message.

"When you are in someplace so beautiful, you feel lucky and grateful that someone before you had the foresight to save this," Williams says. "Now it's in our hands."

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Gulfshore Life will honor four local environmental heroes at an annual Earth Day luncheon 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 22, at Hilton Naples & Towers, 5111 Tamiami Trail N. For tickets or more information, call (239) 262-0750. To find out about volunteer opportunities with the Conservancy, call (239) 403-4212 or e-mail volunteer@conservancy.org.

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