Benefits of Snowbirds’ volunteerism go both ways

By Joe Culpepper

Snowbirds across the region contribute more than their tourism dollars to the area economy.

They also unselfishly donate thousands of volunteer hours toward helping our communities.

In Destin, northern winter visitors sell performance tickets that help fund scholarships for Okaloosa-Walton College’s award-winning show choir. Panama City’s Snowbirds, who call Noah’s Ark home in the winter, help raise money to support summer youth ministries. Pensacola Beach Snowbirds put their years of teaching experience to use by mentoring local students in mathematics and speech.

Snowbirds, who make Gulf Shores, Ala., their second home, sponsor a bratwurst-cooking fund-raiser, conduct shrimp boils, assist with pancake breakfasts and volunteer at the Baldwin County Historical Museum.

These are just a few of the many ways Snowbirds give unselfishly of their time and talents to enhance an already wonderful standard of living along the Gulf Coast.

“If Snowbirds are bored, they are sick in the head,” says Wisconsin native Robert Gilray. “There’s always plenty to do.”

Gilray helped launch the enormously popular annual Snowbird Bratfest, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on Feb. 9. Since its inception, Bratfest has raised more than $54,000 for fire departments in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan.

For most Snowbirds, community involvement simply is a great way to make friends and get involved. Few think of volunteerism as work. With a vast array of skills and ideas, Snowbirds often stimulate locals who otherwise might take life on the coast for granted.

“By their very exuberance and existence, they create an enthusiasm and reawakening of interest,” says Becky Holliday, Education Director and Corresponding Secretary of the Baldwin County Historical Museum.

“Some people never appreciate their own backyard, but these Snowbirds look at things through a new set of eyes. They see it with a new appreciation, and they awaken what we tend to become complacent about and forget. That’s an incredible gift.”

Bratfest began in 1999 as a humble brat-cooking event featuring the famous old-world sausage that is so popular in the Midwest. Before Hurricane Ivan, the event sold about 4,500 brats. That number has slipped slightly to this year’s 3,500 post-Ivan sales. Twelve Snowbird state clubs and more than 300 people joined forces to stage the event.

Brats no longer have to be imported, which benefits the local economy.

“This year we did something new and purchased local brats,” said Bratfest co-chairman Cindy Sinn, a Lillian, Ala., resident and former Ohio Snowbird. “The Robertsdale Meat Market made a brat especially for us. There were excellent.”

“Snowbirds want to stay active and be part of the community while they are here,” says Tim Blakemore, chief of the Gulf Shores Fire Department. Previous Bratfest proceeds enabled his firehouse purchase a state-of-the-art thermal imaging camera that can locate people shrouded by heavy smoke in a fire.

“It (thermal imaging camera) was probably the first one in Baldwin County,” he said. “There have been a lot of them purchased around the county since then, and a lot of the Snowbirds funds have been used to buy specialized equipment like that.”

With this year’s proceeds, the Gulf Shores FD plans to purchase training aids that can help in education and fire prevention for the public.

Snowbirds who camp at the Wales West RV Resort in Silverhill, Ala., help maintain its light-scale railroad and Victorian buildings.

“I’ve been at Wales West for two years, and I have met some of the nicest people, ready to share their life experiences and even give me some advice once in a while,” says Shelby Carraway, a resort spokesperson. “I have learned from them that while you do get older, you don’t have to be old. You can still be happy and have fun. You can always learn something new and make new friends.”

Mary Ann and Tom Ritter of Erie, Pa., take time to mentor students at a Pensacola Beach elementary school.

“We loved our jobs, evidenced by each of us having 30-plus years in the education field,” Tom said. “We enjoy giving a little something back to the area down here. The area has been very nice to us.”

The Destin Snowbird Club donates proceeds from its annual OWC Soundsations Show Choir Las Vegas Review to support musical arts scholarships at the Niceville community college.

Regional zoos, churches, libraries and parks are beneficiaries of Snowbirds’ generosity.

“Snowbirds are a wealth and resource that we need to be certain to appreciate,” Holliday says. “Without them, all of us would suffer.”