Recently, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society Friends of the Refuge (DDWS) announced the appointment of the organization’s very first executive director, Birgit Vertesch — of course, most islanders know her as Birgie!
Read on to learn where you’ll find this nature-lover on a typical Sunday morning and why moving to Sanibel has helped her refine her driving skills.
Where are you from originally?
Having moved to the island with my husband, Kevin, nearly ten years ago, I’m beginning to feel like a Floridian, but a part of me will always be in Indiana where I grew up and lived until moving to Sanibel. Muncie, Centerville, Richmond, Indianapolis, Bloomington and Hanover College were all places in which I spent time. Living on Sanibel for as long as I have, I am proud to now be a part of this very special community and look forward to many more years!
What's your family like?
Having recently lost my mother, it reinforced to me how important family is to us and being in each others lives fully and completely. I am blessed with a wonderful family, several of whom also live on Sanibel (my sister Inga and her family and my father Norman Miller who spends the winters on the island). With them here, it has given me the opportunity to really be a part of their lives and I love it. While the beaches are beautiful and the wildlife amazing here on Sanibel, the people are truly what make this island special. Someone once said "Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” I am very choosy and work hard at surrounding myself with positive people. There are so many of them here in Southwest Florida and I have a wonderful eclectic "family" of friends here and around the country. I would be remiss in not including my love of our two dogs, Ollie (named after my Grandmother — I don’t know if that’s an honor??) and Ranger (named after one of my husbands boats — he loves to fish). Having grown up with a father as a veterinarian, I am a true lover of all living things — domestic and wild. Sanibel is perfect!
What brought you to the Refuge?
I think the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge brings people to them because of its commitment to conservation, wildlife and habitat protection. It’s what has helped to make this island so unique. I am very proud to be working with the Wildlife Society and representing a group that works so hard to continue the legacy "Ding" Darling started so many years ago in supporting this wonderful refuge and teaching others to care about our earth. The refuge staff and volunteers are an incredible group of people who are in it because they love what they do and are committed to make a difference for all of us.
What other organizations have you worked for in Southwest Florida?
I am a consummate volunteer and get called to help a number of different organizations with special events and other programs. Professionally, people might recognize me on the island as having been with CROW and Bank of the Islands. Before joining the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, I was with a great team at the Lee Memorial Health System Foundation. I believe we are all put on this earth to do something and I feel very strongly about being a part of a community in some capacity and doing my small part to make a difference.
In your free time, what do you like to do?
For those who know me, they know I hate to exercise. But — I know it is good for me, so I try. People may see me on the east end of the island with my dogs walking me — and when a big truck, biker or runner come by (which is often) then they pull me down the path...which gets my heart pumping! People may also see me on the bike path Sunday mornings for a social (yet somewhat strenuous ride) with a friend or two where we head to Captiva for breakfast. (Whatever calories we lost on the ride, we gained back eating!)
I do love the island and never tire of the beauty surrounding us. While my husband lives and breathes fishing, I like the social aspect of boating and he will occasionally take us to various waterside restaurants. On the way back, he’ll take us into the area of the Refuge where you don’t see anything but green land and wildlife. No fishing poles...no talking...just nature. I need that too!
What's something people might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a fairly open book and people get what they see with me, but many people would probably be surprised to learn that I was painfully shy as a young girl. In addition, they might be surprised that I have my "master’s degree" from the school of defensive driving — most infractions took place when I commuted from Bloomington, Ind. to the IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Living on this sanctuary island, I have learned to slow down and take deep breaths!
If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be and why?
There are so many people alive and dead who would be phenomenal dinner guests that it is hard to pick just one. I just finished the book "The Life of Jay Norwood Darling" and now that I am with the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, it would be an honor to meet with him and get his feelings on our efforts to date in the area of conservation and what he felt we should do to continue his legacy and that of so many others who gave so much of themselves in saving and conserving nature’s wonders. It’s scary to think if J.N. “Ding” Darling, Theodore Roosevelt and so many others had not done what they did in protecting our lands, where we would be today.
What are your long and short term goals, both personally and professionally?
Personal goal: exercise more, giving me the extra years to live a long and productive life!
Professional goal: continue to believe in what I am doing and do my best at making a difference.
In your eyes, what makes the Refuge unique?
In 1935, J.N. "Ding" Darling said: "A national wildlife restoration program is based on the premise that wildlife is not only worth our efforts to restore it, but that its restoration is absolutely and vitally essential to the welfare of our citizens."
When people visit the "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and are surrounded by nature and the many birds, it reinforces to them that protecting our wildlife and their habitats are definitely worth our efforts here in Southwest Florida and around the world. “Ding” Darling will always be a very special and unique place and something everyone should experience.