Two numbers stood out for the Lee County Sheriff's Office when the Volunteer Observers Impacting Community Efforts group was recognized for their 2009 effort at the 15th Annual VOICE Appreciation Luncheon hosted by the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce Traffic Committee and the Town of Fort Myers Beach at Lee Plantation in Fort Myers on Thursday, April 22: 45,769 and 954,283.
The first number represents how many volunteer county service hours V.O.I.C.E collectively accumulated last year, while the second figure is the amount of money saved by the local police department for having these brave souls work for free. The volunteer organization began in 1988 when the county sheriff's department needed more deputies but had no budget to hire them.
"You guys make it happen, and you make my job really easy, especially when you answer your phones," Sergeant Dede Petracca, supervisor for Lee Sheriff's V.O.I.C.E. unit, told the many volunteer attendees.
The Volunteer Observers Impacting Community Efforts group had a sweet luncheon.
More than 80 Lee Sheriff's volunteers -mostly retired men and women (some of whom are married couples) with the eldest being 92 years old- were praised for their services including several who work on Fort Myers Beach during the busy winter/spring season and direct traffic at the foot of Mantanzas Pass Bridge.
"We really couldn't run nearly as efficiently without them," said Captain Matt LeBlanc, the commander of the West District which includes the Beach. "The hours they put in is just unbelievable. Spring Break wouldn't go as smoothly, and their hours of volunteering at the (traffic) light all day until deputies take over at 4 p.m. is irreplaceable."
V.O.I.C.E. members were recognized with Olympic-colored medals for their time: bronze (100-249 hours of service); silver (250-499); and gold (500-plus hours). Gold medalist Hank Torti, one of LeBlanc's district volunteers, was named V.O.I.C.E Member of the Year for amassing an incredible 2,401.5 hours of service. "That's more than a normal work year of 2,080 hours," said LeBlanc.
Beach V.O.I.C.E. worker John Tridone enjoys the brotherhood associated with the organization.
"It's only a unique bunch of people who will work more than 2,000 hours for free," he said. "How many times do you find people like that. Each year, it seems we put in more hours as a unit. Where would you find a group like this any place?"
Besides Torti and Tridone, 26 other Beach V.O.I.C.E members work the Beach. They are Bob Barnes, Mel Castle, Richard Catania, George Chapman, Doug Cowie, Richard D'Imperio, Jack Dooling, Richard Frey, James Gleisle, Jim Goulette, Joe Greco, John Grubb, James Jordan, James Kruzick, Barry Kurtz, Garland Liskey, Cynthia Mestas, Edward Miller, Sherrill Moulton, Dominic Pittro, Peter Prichard, Steven Rathka, Russ Sauer, Arthur Strong, David Sully and Gary Taibbi.
Several lieutenants and captains from each district in Lee County as well as the department's traffic unit were all on hand. FMB Town Manager Terry Stewart and Beach Chamber President John Albion also listened to guest speakers Lee Chief Rob Homan, Florida Attorney Stephen Russell and Beach Chamber Chairman Andrew Cochrane offer kind words.
"Thank you for being a true friend of the Fort Myers Beach area community," Cochrane said to the volunteers. "You have made a substantial difference to our traffic flow for many years. Thank you, Sheriff's Department, for implementing the vision of a community-based organization that allows true members of our Lee County community to give back in a way that makes our community stronger and better for everyone. "
If interested in becoming a member of V.O.I.C.E., call the sheriff's volunteer office at 477-1422. Interested parties need to be at least 18 years old; a high school graduate or possess a G.E.D; have a valid Florida driver's license or temporary one; no criminal record; and in good health.