Volunteers play an essential role in keeping Visitor Center’s doors open

By Christiana Lilly | New Pelican Writer

Lauderdale-By-The-Sea – Anyone who stops by the Lauderdale-By-The-Sea Visitor Center on a Monday is sure to run into John Siegle.

A volunteer at the center for four years, the retired resident is responsible for greeting guests, helping them plan their stay in the beach town, answering phones, and opening and closing the center. After a career in hotels and associations, including being the director of marketing and sales for Marriott and Sheraton, he gets to keep flexing his hospitality muscle.

“I’ve lived in South Florida for over 50 years, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to share my experiences with people who were new to Lauderdale-By-The-Sea [LBTS] and help with their vacation experience,” Siegle said. 

Visitor Center volunteer Chris Vallarta helps a tourist from England find some area amenities. [Staff]

For a municipality as small as LBTS, volunteerism has been essential to keeping things running as well as that sense of community the town prides itself on. This is especially true for the center, which has just a handful of employees but a fleet of volunteers.

“Lauderdale-By-The-Sea is a quaint community in part because of the many volunteers that work in our community,” says Linda Connors, town manager. “From the Visitor Center ambassadors, to the COP program [Citizens On Patrol] with the BSO, to the Volunteer Fire Department and the Garden Club ladies – and gentlemen – we have relied on our volunteers to maintain our small town charm.”

Chris Vallarta knows this from experience; she’s been a volunteer at the Visitor Center for 18 years, almost as long as she’s been living in the town her family has called home for half a century. She was always volunteering for different organizations, including Meals on Wheels, and when she moved to Lauderdale-By-The-Sea from New York, she discovered they were searching for volunteers. 

Vallarta spends her Tuesdays at the center, answering questions from visitors who have come from around the world to enjoy the beach, the pier, and get advice on where else they should explore during their trip. She loves to recommend her favorite restaurants in the downtown area and snorkeling havens, as well as more out-of-the-way locales such as Flamingo Gardens or Butterfly World for travelers with little ones in tow. Siegle is also keen on sharing water activities around town, including BugFest during lobster mini season, or the Jungle Queen and Water Taxi in Fort Lauderdale.

Although the service of some of the Visitor Center’s volunteers has remained unchanged for years, the center itself has gone through some recent changes.

During the pandemic, it underwent a facelift as well as received funding from the town to help with payroll. This year, control of the center was transferred from the town’s chamber of commerce to the town. Siegle says with the town being a neutral party, recommendations about restaurants and other businesses can be given regardless of whether they are a member of the chamber or not.

Connors says that the chamber did a great job establishing and managing the center, and the town is looking forward to growing it.

“The Town is excited to move forward with management of the Visitor Center and to create new programs and opportunities that build on the chamber’s past efforts while modernizing and increasing the importance of this special place,” she says.

But at the end of the day, for Siegle and Vallarta, it’s a fun place to volunteer their time and meet people who are learning the beauty of the town they both love.

“I believe in volunteer work, I believe in community service, and frankly all the visitors are in such good moods,” Vallarta says. “It’s a very stress-free volunteer job.”

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