#SWFLstrong — 4,510 pounds of trash: Woman devotes a decade to cleaning up Tigertail Beach

December 10 was a chilly day on Marco Island, with the morning temperature barely reaching 60 degrees.

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Editor's note: This is the latest story in the #SWFLstrong series, profiling individuals making a positive difference in the community. These articles will be featured on a regular basis in the Collier Citizen, Marco Eagle and The Banner.

December 10 was a chilly day on Marco Island, with the morning temperature barely reaching 60 degrees. Factor in the constant wind and the appropriate outfit was definitely sweatpants and a sweatshirt rather than shorts and a tank top, but the cold weather didn’t stop Susan LaGrotta from hitting the beach at 8 a.m. for the Friends of Tigertail Beach’s quarter-annual cleanup.

Friends of Tigertail Beach is a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving, protecting and enhancing the natural features of Tigertail Beach, one of the island’s three beaches. The organization was founded in 1997 and LaGrotta has been its beach steward chairperson for the past decade.

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Susan LaGrotta devotes a decade to cleaning up Tigertail Beach. Lisa Conley

“Friends of Tigertail began…(as) a group of residents who walked the beach daily and picked up trash,” she said. “About 10 years ago I joined the Friends of Tigertail as a member and participated in different beach walks and cleanups and I was asked to chair one of the cleanups,” and she’s been doing it ever since.

As the beach steward, LaGrotta is responsible for organizing the beach cleanups, recruiting volunteers and helping to coordinate the group’s other events, like “Breakfast and Birds” and “Discover Tigertail,” two nature programs that teach participants about the beach’s natural wonders.

“Even people who have lived on Marco for many years have never been exposed to the natural wildlife and foliage that’s here on the beach,” LaGrotta said, “and that’s the most exciting part…about doing the cleanups: meeting people and introducing them to the uniqueness of this park.”

And the reason the park is so unique is because, unlike the island’s other beaches, Tigertail Beach is located on a lagoon, not the Gulf, so it has an entirely different ecosystem; a mangrove forest, sea grass, mudflat community and sand dunes are all part of Tigertail Beach, and the nearby Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area is a resting site for three species of migratory birds: black skimmers, snowy plover and least terns.

And keeping the beach clean is paramount to keeping that unique ecosystem alive and thriving, LaGrotta said.

“Stewardship… is important just by virtue of the fact that you want to maintain the beauty of where you live,” she said, “and also reaching out to youth so that they start young and understand and preserve this beauty.”

That’s why LaGrotta makes sure to reach out to different youth groups – such as Girl and Boy Scout troops and the local schools – when she’s planning the beach cleanups. About a dozen members of the Marco Island Academy’s Key Club woke up early on a Saturday morning to attend the December cleanup, and LaGrotta said it’s that kind of dedication that she hopes to see from other young people, as well.

“It’s not just picking up some trash; it’s about what the beach is all about,” she said. “It’s a connection with, ‘Gee, I love going down to the beach and running around and having a great time swimming, but I also want to keep it clean for myself and for the future.’”

To help foster that connection, the Friends of Tigertail Beach offers three scholarships for middle school students to attend summer camp at Rookery Bay.

“Middle school children have to write an essay and we pick three and then we send them to Rookery Bay for a week,” LaGrotta said. “That’s where all of our donations go.”

It’s not just kids who help LaGrotta clean the beach, though; it’s visitors from across the country, and even across the world.

“People come clean the beach from Missouri, Minnesota, Canada, Europe and they’ll say, ‘Oh we saw your beach cleanup advertised and we wanted to join you,’" she said. "And that’s kind of exciting because they clean their beach somewhere else and they’re aware; the awareness is there. ‘Oh, I love this beach, I’ll help out for an hour or two.’”

Although the cleanups officially last two to four hours, LaGrotta happily accepts any amount of time that volunteers are willing to donate.

“You don’t have to come for four hours; you can come for half an hour,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that they have to give up half their day; any little bit helps.”

Especially since all the little bits of trash that those people pick up add up; during her 10 years as beach steward, LaGrotta has recruited 1,587 volunteers who’ve collected 591 bags of trash and 16 tires for a total of 4,510 pounds of waste. Even within the first 15 minutes of Saturday’s cleanup, a volunteer collected a grocery bag full of trash.

“It’s sad that people mistreat the beach,” LaGrotta said, “so we’re working really hard to change that.”

Friends of Tigertails’ next “Breakfast and Birds” is 9 a.m. Jan. 28 and the next “Discover Tigertail” is 9 a.m. Feb. 25. The next beach cleanup is April 8 in collaboration with Keep Collier Beautiful’s Bay Days.

To nominate an individual for the "#SWFLstrong" series, contact reporter Lisa Conley at 239-213-5308 or lisa.conley@naplesnews.com.

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