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Guadalupe Center second-graders rejoin Hideaway Beach volunteers on Marco Island for day of fun, learning

A 32-year Marco Island tradition that brings hundreds of Immokalee elementary school students to the island for a day of fun and learning with adult mentors returned to Hideaway Beach on Presidents Day after several years of virtual-only sessions during the prolonged pandemic and Hurricane Ian.

The annual Buddy Day event, hosted at Hideaway Beach Club, pairs second-graders in the nonprofit Guadalupe Center’s Early Childhood Education Program with adult volunteers from several area communities for a field trip to remember, featuring arts and crafts, shell hunts, environmental education, games and more.

Despite cooler temperatures and the occasional wind gust, nearly 200 students and mentors experienced an educational day at the beach — an activity that for some of the children marked the first time seeing the Gulf of Mexico with their own eyes, along with manatee mailboxes, dolphin statues perched in yards and other colorful sights and sounds of Marco Island.

“This is one of our most fun days of the year,” said Dawn Montecalvo, Guadalupe Center president and CEO. “Our students can learn through play and exploration, from bird walks and collecting seashells to opportunities throughout the day to bond with our committed volunteers working as Big Buddies.”

As Guadalupe Center celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the event also highlighted the organization’s deep ties to Marco Island.

Marco is where a core group of volunteers at what was then an Immokalee soup kitchen helped create what is now the After-school Tutoring Program. That effort, in turn, helped lay the foundation for the organization’s successful college-preparatory Tutor Corps Program.

“For many of these students, despite their proximity, a day trip to the beach remains out of reach,” Montecalvo added. “By exposing our students to all that Southwest Florida has to offer, we hope to encourage and inspire them as both students and future community leaders.”

Silviano Rubio Diaz, an Immokalee High School senior and Tutor Corps student, said the excitement on the hour-long bus ride from Immokalee to Marco Island was palpable, especially as the visitors crossed the S.S. Jolley Bridge upon arrival.

“Most of these kids have never been outside Immokalee,” said Rubio Diaz, who plans to enroll in college early this summer at the University of South Florida. “A lot of them have never seen a bridge in real life. To be able to give them these opportunities is a true blessing.”

Participating organizations at Buddy Day included Big Cypress National Preserve, whose representatives led a birding expedition; Kids2Camp; YMCA of Collier County; Marco Island Fire Department, which hosted a fire engine for display; Marco Island Shell Club; and Seminole Casino Immokalee, which provided buses for transportation. Snack donations were provided by Dustin Leeka of Farmer Mike’s Produce, Steve Cohen of the National Golf Course Restaurant Association and Mike Moody of Cheney Brothers.

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