Pinellas County volunteers Karl Cummings, left, and Brian Fairbanks help to keep Fort De Soto Park the jewel that keeps visitors coming back for more.
Fort De Soto celebrated its 50th anniversary as a Pinellas County park this year and with more than 1,100 acres, Fort De Soto is the largest of the county’s parks.
It has been named America’s Top Beach by Trip Advisor and the No. 1 beach in the nation by Dr. Beach. Maintaining the sprawling park on the Gulf of Mexico is a huge undertaking and takes a large number of dedicated people.
Like all parks and many of the various departments in the county, Fort De Soto has come to rely on VIPs (Volunteers in Pinellas) to assist in caring for the parks and keeping things neat and clean. Two volunteers that have become a real asset to the park are Karl Cummings and Brian Fairbanks.
Fairbanks, who is 60 years old and lives in Clearwater, worked for Verizon for 31 years in a number of different capacities, including supervisory and management positions. Cummings, a 62-year-old St. Petersburg resident, also worked at Verizon for 32 years including five years in management. Over the years they became close friends and both retired about the same time.
The pair went out to Fort De Soto one day last year to do some fishing with a friend who had just become a park volunteer. The friend had to make a quick stop by the office. It was then the pair decided to also become volunteers.
Fairbanks joked that the other friend only volunteers occasionally. But they are working at the park every Tuesday. At first they also were volunteering on Thursdays until their wives noted a lot of household chores weren’t getting done. In addition to helping the park stay pristine, Fairbanks said there is an added reward to volunteering: the pair learned where the best fishing spots are.
“We really didn’t know what to expect when we first came out here,” Fairbanks said. “We thought maybe picking up trash or doing little odd jobs.”
But he said that Keith Holland, a marine construction inspector who oversees their work, has had them doing a wide variety of things and “he’s a great teacher and teaching us all kinds of stuff.” They work on sewer and electrical problems at the campground, help stain park benches and more. Fairbanks smiled. “We’ll do just about anything within reason.”
Speaking of trash, Cummings said they’ve become known as the trash men in the park because they’ve rebuilt and modified most of the existing wood structures that house new brown trash cans seen throughout the park.
Holland, who has been at Fort De Soto for more than two years and previously spent 13 years working at Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg, said volunteers like Fairbanks and Cummings “do things that we don’t have the time to do so it really makes a big difference. I encourage everybody, even those whom I meet on the street, to come to the park and volunteer.”
Holland said that everyone that comes in and volunteers ends up learning something new. As it turns out, “We end up learning something new from the volunteers and that helps us out.”
Pinellas County volunteers can expect to make a difference in the life of their community, while exploring interests, sharing knowledge, assisting others and making friends.