Of 648 passes available to families with children to visit five area attractions, 615 were distributed at the county libraries
Early this summer, Sarasota resident Steve Wall learned about a pilot Family Field Trips program that would be operated through the Sarasota County libraries. Patterned after a similar initiative county leaders learned about last year in Louisville, Ky., it allowed families to visit local attractions for free as a means of encouraging children to keep learning during the summer.
In late July, Wall wrote The Sarasota News Leader, “We just used the last of the passes at [Historic] Spanish Point yesterday. We were given a full tour over 2 hours and we loved it.”
He, his fiancée, Michelle Eppel; his grandson, Skyler, 16; and his granddaughter, Keylee, 8, also visited Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Mote Aquarium and Big Cat Habitat, he noted.
“These passes enabled us to enjoy and share our local attractions with our grandchildren without a financial burden to us,” he added. “I will promote these attractions to everyone I talk to because each one is such a treasure for families. I want to thank the county of Sarasota and each attraction.”
Wall signed his email, “A satisfied county grandparent.”
(The Children’s Garden participated in the program as well.)
The target group for the initiative, Commissioner Christine Robinson told her colleagues on the county board last fall, would be families who otherwise could not afford to take such outings. She won consensus from her fellow commissioners to have county staff establish the pilot initiative.
Wall read about the Family Field Trips program in the News Leader after county staff launched it in June, he said.
A preliminary report to the County Commission about the results of the initiative, dated Aug. 8, shows that of the 648 passes available for families, 615 were distributed. Historic Spanish Point had provided 33 passes that had not been picked up at the time the report was prepared, Sarabeth Kalajian, director of libraries and historical resources for the county, noted in her memo.
Spanish Point also allocated five passes per library per week, for a total of 360, the memo notes, whereas the other attractions provided one per library each week, for a total of 288.
Because each pass was good for four people — typically two adults and two children — Kalajian noted in a June 1 email to Commissioner Robinson that 2,592 people potentially “will explore an attraction this summer, right in their Sarasota County ‘backyard.’”
In a telephone interview with the News Leader on Aug. 17, Tim Cincotta, marketing manager for Sarasota Jungle Gardens, said, “I think from an operational standpoint, everything went very well.”
“We believe in the cause,” he continued. The attraction’s staff members were hoping that the passes “would get into the hands” of families who otherwise would not have been able to visit Jungle Gardens, he said. “That’s really one of the big reasons we decided to participate.” And that is all the more reason he believes Jungle Gardens will continue to be part of the program in coming summers, he added.
Library staff also had emphasized the educational value of the visits to children when it was meeting with potential partners, Cincotta noted.
The flyer county staff created for the Family Field Trips pointed out that participants would receive pre-trip information and book suggestions related to each attraction. One pass was allocated per family each week between June 6 and Aug. 9, while the Sarasota County schools were out of session.
Jungle Gardens was established in 1939, Cincotta added. Participating in the program is “also our way of saying, ‘Thank you’ to the community [for its support over the decades],” he told the News Leader.
Mote Aquarium, like Jungle Gardens, proved a very popular destination among the participants, Kalajian’s Aug. 8 memo says.
In an email responding to the News Leader’s request for a comment about Mote’s involvement, Evan Barniskis, assistant vice president of Mote Aquarium, wrote, “We worked with the county library system to provide free admission to nearly 300 children and adults this summer who participated in the program to help promote summer reading for children. Mote’s commitment to supporting a more ocean-literate society begins with children and we’re happy to inspire children, who could be the next-generation of marine scientists, to discover the world of reading and the wonders of the ocean here at Mote.”
Details of the preliminary data
The three libraries that distributed the highest number of passes — 72 — were Gulf Gate in Sarasota, Jacaranda in Venice and the Venice library, which has been functioning in the Venice Community Center since the County Commission had to close the public library in January because of persistent mold problems.
The Fruitville and North Port libraries distributed 69 passes each, the Aug. 8 report says, while the Osprey library provided the lowest number — 59. The report points out that the Osprey location typically has fewer family visitors.
The most popular attractions, according to the report, were Big Cat Habitat, Jungle Gardens and Mote Aquarium.
Kalajian wrote in the Aug. 8 memo that the program was promoted at each of the libraries through posters, the distribution of flyers and the traditional Summer Reading program events. Additionally, Kalajian continued, staff notified agencies serving children, teens and families. “With the modest supply of Passes depleted each Monday,” she continued, “no additional promotion was implemented.”
Kalajian also pointed to the collaboration of the county’s Libraries Department staff with the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, the county’s Economic Development Department and Visit Sarasota County to create the program.
The Libraries Department staff plans to meet Aug. 26 with representatives of the attractions and the Alliance “to evaluate the success of the program and consider continuation in the future,” Kalajian wrote. She would provide an update to the County Commission after that session, she added, including details of the number of passes redeemed at each attraction.
“It looks like it was relatively successful,” Commissioner Robinson said of the pilot program during an Aug. 17 telephone interview with the News Leader. She was eager to see the final report, she added.