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Beach Watchers win volunteer honors from Washington state

Two Beach Watchers contingents from Island County were recognized as top volunteer groups Thursday by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

The Beach Watchers of Island County and the Beach Watchers of Camano Island received awards from State Parks Director Rex Derr in a ceremony under the dome at the Capitol.

“It’s a wonderful honor,” said Sammye Kempbell, a dedicated Beach Watcher.

She dedicates much of her free time to keep the fragile Whidbey Island beach ecosystem balanced.

In spring, Kempbell and other Beach Watchers guide about 250 children a day through Rosario Beach and Deception Pass parks and teach them how to take care of the beach, she said. They educate, clean, collect data and answer questions from the public.

“Last year I started counting,” Kempbell said. She talked to nearly 1,500 people in only two months at Whidbey Island parks.

Dedication such as this was recognized Thursday.

Kempbell, Advisory Council President Ron Wilkerson, program coordinator Kristen Cooley and Camano Island volunteer Alice Blandin traveled to Olympia to accept the award on behalf of all Beach Watcher volunteers.

“It’s all about education,” said Don Meehan, the Washington State University extension agent for Island County.

“Our group focuses on engaging our local community in learning about its natural resources. We do that through stewardship, research and education,” he said.

The commission selected Beach Watchers for their work on Island County beaches, especially Camano Island, Rosario Beach and Deception Pass. They have built a reputation for their educational programs and guided tours.

“We do have an impact. We are starting to get a reputation all the way to the Seattle Aquarium,” Kempbell said. “They know we do good work.”

In 2005, the Island County Beach Watchers spoke to more than 6,000 park visitors about tide pools during low tides.

In addition to assisting with the interpretive programs, they also removed invasive plants, watched over seal pups and conducted an ongoing survey of the tide pools.

The Camano Island Beach Watchers have been involved at Camano Island and Cama Beach state parks. They have assisted in interpretation, education and participated in clean-ups. In 2005, the Beach Watchers gave evening interpretive talks to more than 1,200 park visitors and provided beach education to local school groups. Late last year, the Camano Island Beach Watchers teamed up with Starbucks to hold a beach clean-up. Sixty-five volunteers spent nearly 200 hours cleaning and removing leaves and debris from the park.

Meehan said volunteers receive 100 hours of training in everything from “the tops of mountains to the depths of marine waters” so that they can teach the public about beach etiquette and inter-tidal life.

Volunteers also assist park rangers by answering questions from park visitors, a service that helps Washington State Parks save thousands of dollars each year. State parks work with volunteers throughout the state to continue enhancing agency efficiency and to stretch funding. Last year, volunteers performed more than 250,000 hours of work, equal to nearly 127 full-time employees.

“We really appreciate our volunteers. Without them a lot of things wouldn’t get done,” said Virginia Painter, Washington State Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.

Each year the commission gives out awards in 15 categories. Beach Watchers won the group volunteer award for outstanding, continuous dedication.

The winners had an opportunity to rub shoulders with Washington leadership and chat with politicians about their work.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, was at the ceremony and spent some time with the winners.

“The Beach Watchers value to the community is incalculable,” Haugen said. “This group raises everyone’s knowledge of natural resources and stewardship.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire also stopped by at the award ceremony in the Capitol rotunda to congratulate the winners.

The Beach Watchers’ mission is to value and protect Island County’s marine environment.

As founders of the regional Beach Watcher program, Island County Beach Watchers are proud of their accomplishments, Cooley said.

They are dedicated to their educational mission. Since 1989, more than 200 Island County residents have completed Beach Watcher training. Every year the Beach Watchers give back more than 15,000 hours of volunteer service — collecting data, evaluating water quality, talking with the public, conducting tours and classes, and doing hands-on work such as removing invasive weeds from fragile estuaries.

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