A Sense of Duty

A Sense of DutyVolunteerism flourishes on the Emerald Coastby Thomas J. Monigan

Autumn is often a time of reflection, and this September brings with it the 10th anniversary of what America has come to know simply as 9/11. On that fateful morning, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., claimed thousands of innocent victims. Among them were heroes who gave their lives simply trying to help others in the most extreme circumstances.

Our Giving Back story reflects on what it means to us to have a designated National Day of Service on Sept. 11.  We look at local volunteer efforts provided by people and organizations that don’t count the cost in terms of time or effort. These local heroes don’t seek recognition. They simply do what needs to be done so that the community at large can continue to improve, every single day.


About 62.8 million people across America volunteered their time at least once between September 2009 and September 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That works out to 26.3 percent of the country’s overall population.

According to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 22.3 percent of Florida’s population volunteered in 2009. In West Florida, the numbers rise. Here, 27.8 percent rolled up their sleeves as volunteers, which equates to 2.1 billion hours of service.

So just how much difference can one person make when it comes to giving time and energy to the community at large? Plenty. And that positive impact gets multiplied countless times when individuals team up for collective efforts. Here is a closer look at the efforts of one volunteer and one charity that make a difference on the Emerald Coast:

Tom Rice
This compact dynamo didn’t even consider slowing down when he retired from the U.S. Army as a first sergeant. Instead, he opened the Magnolia Grill just down from The Landing on Brooks Street in Fort Walton Beach. For the past 15-plus years, he’s been the man in charge at the combination eatery and museum.

And as anyone who’s ever attempted it knows, you don’t count the hours or the effort when it comes to running your own business. But Rice, who turned 63 this spring, has been involved in the community since he was a teenager. And he’s not about to slow down now.

“I guess a lot of the volunteering started when I was a high schooler and helping with the Kiwanis Spaghetti Dinner,” he recalled recently. “Jim Starkey was involved with it, and my best friend was his son Stu Starkey, and I ended up marrying his sister, Peggy.

“And there was a long tradition of members on both sides of the family for volunteer work,” he added. “What I learned from them is that time is short, and you need to make time for things that are important.”

According to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 22.3 percent of Florida’s population volunteered in 2009.

Rice volunteers with at least 10 non-profits, the most visible being Fisher House of the Emerald Coast and the Emerald Coast Honor Flight. Rice is quick to mention that he doesn’t accomplish all this by himself; he gets plenty of support from his wife, Peggy, and their daughter, Meghan Rice Gordon.

“When we’re tired at the end of  an Honor Flight, or a pancake breakfast fundraiser or a board meeting for Fisher House, it gives us a great amount of joy to realize we’re doing what we were put on earth to do,” Rice said.

Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation
In just six years, this event has raised more than $5 million for local charities, according to Todd Vucovich, executive director of the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation (DCWAF). This year’s total is expected to reach about $1.4 million, and that money will be distributed among the following:

BBB helps ensure “wise giving”

Perhaps the best way to check out a charitable organization is through the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Northwest Florida (nwfl.bbb.org). The BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance has a list of about 180 non-profits in its database that covers 14 counties.

“We have 20 standards overall that are covered in four main categories,” said Karen Szulczewski of the BBB’s regional office in Pensacola. “And our data base is entirely request driven.”

The four areas of accountability are:
+ How the organization is governed
+ Ways in which the money is spent
+ Truthfulness of their representations
+ Willingness to disclose basic information to the public

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida; Children in Crisis; Children’s Volunteer Health Network, Inc.; Eleanor J. Johnson Youth Ranch; Emerald Coast Autism Center; Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center; Horizons; Pathways for Change; Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast; Shelter House; Youth Village.

“One of the things that we do that’s maybe a little different is that we’re a charity for charities,” Vucovich said.
DCWAF is successful at leveraging both its volunteers and chosen charities. Vucovich explains that the foundation combines its “know-how with food and wine connections” and the support of its 24-member board and the broad base of volunteers from its beneficiary charities to form a charity powerhouse. “The charities provide additional manpower needed, so DCWAF can execute its large-scale events. We look at it as a partnership,” he said.

In addition to offering exceptional wine and elaborate wine trips at its annual auction, the DCWAF also brings in celebrity chefs and wine makers to conduct dinner parties in private homes, something that has become quite popular with their supportive donors.

“What we’ve been able to do is use the things in their lifestyle that attract them,” Vucovich said, “and also to expose them to community needs. The charities are the ones on the front line, and they’re out there making an impact in the community.”