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  IslandWalk of Naples

Florida Communities of Excellence Family-Friendly Initiatives Winner, Larger Communities

IslandWalk: Sharing the Work and Fun

by Kathy Danforth

IslandWalk of Naples is the winner of the Family-Friendly Initiatives division of the Florida Communities of Excellence contest, as well as being the Homeowner Association “Community of the Year 2011.” This community of 1856 homes has always enjoyed a focus of providing activities for all ages. Bonnie McNeill, Activities Director for the past eight years, exclaims, "I love children!" Her enthusiasm is shared by many volunteers in the community and has been contagious to others, resulting in a broad involvement in family-friendly activities.

The Town Center is the hub of most activities at IslandWalk. "We have events all day, every day," Bonnie observes. "There are tennis courts, a putting green, a clubhouse (with four large areas for activities), pools, bocce courts, a fitness center, and several commercial establishments. This is where the people congregate."

Volunteers are the backbone of the activities, with 30 people on the Activities Committee and many more in other interest groups who also help sponsor events for kids and expand the opportunities in the community. The association does provide a small community event fund for events such as outdoor concerts, community coffees, and entertainment—such as the Polynesian fire dancers from Orlando. Most activities are self-funded—those who attend pay to cover the costs. However, a number of IslandWalk clubs will sponsor/fund activities for the children, provide volunteer help, and join in the fun!

"We have seasonal parties, but most of the kids' activities are in the summer," McNeill reports. "We have a Year-at-a-Glance schedule so volunteers, parents, and grandparents can all make plans. The summer kicks off with Miss Brenda, a ventriloquist with life-sized puppets. She's a wonderful way to start the summer season," McNeill comments.

Summer classes include Bake with Bonnie, Cool Crafts, Marvelous Manners and Mama Bosso’s Cooking Class, Cuckoo for Coconuts, and a Frondzoo art class. "For the Frondzoo art classes, our maintenance man collects the hard part of palm trees and the kids make elephants, tigers, zebras, and other creatures. They're so imaginative and the end result is absolutely adorable," McNeill explains. "In Marvelous Manners we have a PowerPoint presentation and accompanying booklets we comprised on manners. Then we cook a whole meal. The Cuckoo for Coconuts art class makes coconuts into very colorful fish and tropical birds, and they look as good as the ones that sell for twenty dollars in local gift stores," she adds.

The community will be holding their eighth annual Kids' Fishing Tournament, with the IslandWalk Fishing Club taking the lead in assisting youngsters at the community's main lake. Grandparents, parents, children, and the many volunteers join in the fun. The Men's Golf Group has organized a Golf Rodeo for three years, attracting over 40 children. "They teach them golf games at the Town Center putting green and then they move to the improvised indoor putting green area, finishing the night with a pizza and ice cream party and prizes for every child.

Adding to their many adult educational activities, the Nature Safari group hosts an annual event geared for families and children. "They bring in local environmental professionals from Rookery Bay, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and Corkscrew Sanctuary to give a presentation with live animals for the children to see and sometimes touch," states McNeill. "They've brought in tortoises, reptiles, and birds."

The Bingo Group is another adult organization that has taken the children under their wing. "There are 180 residents who participate weekly, and they chip in and contribute for the holiday parties, summer art camp, and end-of-school and back-to-school festivities," McNeill explains.

"Off-site trips are a hit with all ages," says McNeill. Though parents or grandparents must accompany their children, the advantage of negotiating a group price and the fun of going together makes each outing a great event. “Amazing discounts on boat rides are available in the summer." McNeill recalls. Other trips include visiting the Shy Wolf Sanctuary and the Kowiachobee Animal Preserve, with their tiny horses and big wild cats that were a hit with the children.

“Kids Against Hunger” is a project organized by the Naples Rotary Club which feeds the disadvantaged youth and families within the Collier County area. This $4500 fundraising event produced 35,000 nutritious meals and was accomplished by 150 IslandWalk volunteers. “We literally had every age group busy working side-by-side—children four years old up to seniors 90 years old. It was a huge project, and we sponsored this big event two years in a row.”

Other activities which include children are the annual flea market, bake sale and book sale, dog parades, family movies, the Easter Egg Hunt with an Easter bunny, a Halloween pizza and games party, and the December holiday activity party. McNeill notes, “Once October arrives, the programs are geared largely for adults, with activities such as dinner dances, variety shows, plays/musicals, bus trips, cruises, luncheons, casino events, fitness classes, educational presentations, and more.”

Recruiting volunteers and generating interest are two challenges in keeping the community life vibrant. IslandWalk found that the parents who originally moved in volunteered for a number of years, but as their children aged, they dropped out. McNeill has found, “The new parents are busy and just literally don’t have the time.” IslandWalk has filled the gap by recruiting active retirees, who have become very involved and dedicated. “A good example of our retired volunteer help would be the Chairperson of Activities, a retired school teacher who really enjoys working with the IslandWalk youth,” McNeill explains. “She not only chairs the busy Activities Committee, but she chairs each large holiday event with approximately 100 children and 300 adults in attendance. Additionally, other dedicated retirees volunteer for every youth/family activity held throughout the year. This volunteer support is invaluable to the Activities Director,” McNeill indicates.

IslandWalk also encourages youth to assist with programs. “We have a few high schoolers and several 9–11 year olds who are serving as youth volunteers. They are given responsibilities and the younger kids see that and want to become youth volunteers someday, too!” McNeill states. They receive recognition and a big thank you during the Activities Director’s presentation on Volunteer Appreciation Night at the annual homeowners meeting. The youth volunteers attend also, and this meeting is televised to all the residents.

One aspect contributing to the success of their activities is keeping everything in front of the residents. McNeill relates, “That visual impact helps. Communication for all events streams from the centralized community. Whether residents are picking up their mail, having lunch in the café, or visiting the Town Center, they see posters and bulletin boards advertising upcoming events.” Additionally, McNeill explains, “We send e-mails to the residents about upcoming activities as well as place a banner on the bottom of the screen of one of our TV channels dedicated to updating the community on events. Special brochures are printed twice a year for youth activities geared for the spring/summer and fall/winter.”

“There’s really good communication at IslandWalk,” according to McNeill, “but the main thing is the environment. I love kids, and the Activities Committee, IslandWalk staff, and board have been very supportive. The residents have been willing to work together and volunteer their time. I truly love this place and the people!” she exclaims, and that helps create a situation that others love, too.