They are the men and women who patrol the light daily during tourism season at Times Square on Fort Myers Beach and are often dumbfoundedly blamed for the traffic congestion once drivers reach them.
The Volunteer Observers Impacting Community Efforts group should not be criticized or condemned for their roles, they should be commended, praised and glorified.
"The voice program is very affective. It's a huge help to Fort Myers Beach," said Capt. Matt Powell. "It helps our efforts and helps everybody that tries to cross the street at the light. They are incredible.
Fifteen members of VOICE pose with Lee County Sheriff’s Office officers and Town of Fort Myers Beach officials during a breakfast celebration at Lani Kai Resort last week.
"I know it's exacerbating for motorists who finally reach the light and see someone being allowed to cross. It may appear that they have been crossing people the whole time, but that's no the case. If they are not there, then pedestrians will be walking out in the crosswalk at all times, and cars will stop once they see the pedestrian. It happens again and again and again and again."
Powell should know since he directs traffic himself after relieving VOICE members at 3 p.m. one day a week.
"You really have to manage the people and move those cars," he said. "That's what they do."
Last Wednesday, April 3, 15 of the 28 Beach members of VOICE received many thanks for a thankless job at a breakfast celebration at Lani Kai Resort. Their service efforts are not to be taken for granted.
"We couldn't do our jobs without them," said Dede Petracca, the V.O.I.C.E. supervisor for the Lee County Sheriff's Office. "These guys are out at 6 a.m. and work all day for free. They want to be here. It gives me motivation."
VOICE members also save the Town of Fort Myers Beach and its taxpayers a lot of money. Beginning the day after Christmas and ending last Friday, the voluntary program of the Lee County Sheriff's Office saved the Town almost $30,000 - an amount that would have been paid for deputies to work the light. The volunteers actually moved to Holiday Inn to aid in pedestrian crossing for Sand Bash last Saturday and Sunday.
In 2012, the VOICE program saved the Beach $73,000 between the 100 days at the light as well as parades, special events and other details.
"These people do help make Fort Myers Beach a very successful tourist destination," said Mayor Alan Mandel, who presented the VOICE fund a check for $2,000 at the breakfast.
Petracca stated that annual donation typically goes to VOICE uniforms and supplies needed throughout the year. This year the sheriff volunteers are in for a special treat if Sheriff Mike Scott approves it.
"I am going to get them safety green, lightweight shirts, instead of having to wear those traffic vests," she said. "That way they will stand out, and it'll be cooler for them."
The need for the uniformed volunteers is due to a dramatic increase in population on Estero Island. Some reports say those numbers swell by almost five fold during the winter months.
"Our population surges during that time period," said Mandel. "They are providing a service that makes the island safer and more enjoyable for people so that they want to come back."
VOICE began in 1988, when the county sheriff's department needed more deputies but had no budget to hire them.
Volunteer members -two at a time- are stationed at the traffic light at the foot of Matanzas Pass Bridge This season, they collectively logged in 600 hours, working six-hour days in directing traffic.
Not bad for a group that has an average age of 67. The eldest Beach patrol member is age 75.
"They go out there and have fun," said Petracca. "They are already talking about doing it again next year."
Fort Myers Beach Team Leader George Chapman logged the most hours during the course of tourism season with 292 hours.
"He does the scheduling," said Petracca. "If one of the guys is sick, he is the one that fills in. He's wonderful."
Even with a shorter season due to Easter being earlier this year and cooler weather on some days that resulted in a lighter impact on traffic congestion, the days were still grueling and the traffic still heavy.
"In my estimation, it was probably the same as last year. It depended on the day," said Powell about the amount of traffic. "Overall I think we had a really good season. The traffic stacked up, but it moved."
Other VOICE duties
When they are not directing traffic, VOICE members perform other tasks in other areas of Lee County. They tag abandoned cars, conduct traffic surveys, aid in business patrols such as accidents, pick up found property, canvass neighborhoods, process visitors at the stockade, provide assistance to non-profit organizations and civic groups, finger print, check on houses when residents are vacationing, check shopping plazas for vagrancy, help patrol for lost children and medical emergencies and provide traffic control for all 5K runs and marathons in Lee County.
V.O.I.C.E. members are required to donate a minimum of 16 hours per month, but usually handle more. Some even put in 1,500 to 2,000 hours a year. On 2012, one volunteer logged in 2,272 hours, more than what a full-time deputy puts in for regular time throughout the year.
If interested in becoming a member of V.O.I.C.E., applicants need to be at least 18 years old; a high school graduate or possess a G.E.D; have a valid driver's license; no criminal record; and in good health. Call the sheriff's volunteer office at 477-1422.