For many of the "Freebird" party-goers attending the Norman Bird Sanctuary's "Bird Ball" Saturday night, the evening was an opportunity to celebrate fond memories that began in childhood and continues today well into adulthood, given the wildlife refuge's 60-year rich history in Middletown.
Encompassing 335 acres of abundant preserved open space, including parts of Third Beach and Hanging Rock, the Norman Bird Sanctuary has become a well known landmark on Aquidneck Island, with memories, enrichment and learning opportunities at every turn, thanks to the vision of founder Mabel Norman.
The Norman Bird Sanctuary presented its seventh annual Bird ball Saturday night on the main refuge grounds off Third Beach Road and, as expected, this year's "Free Bird" theme brought out many beautiful and inspired colorful gowns and costumes.
As in previous years, parts of the fields were plowed for additional parking to accomodate the gala guests, but not until after the nesting season was over after August 15th.
Between dancing to hit music provided by DJ Butch, dining on great food from Blackstone Caterers, silent auction bidding, and mingling with friends old, new and dear, like many of Freebirders Saturday night at the Alana Brown couldn't help but recall so many fond memories from so much time spent among the trees, birds, and winding trails of the Norman Bird Sanctuary.
"When you become too old to go to camp, you become a counselor," said Brown, who started as a camper at age 5 and later became a camp counselor. "Coming to tonight's fundraiser brings those memories back...By far my favorite thing growing up. You learn a lot."
She added, "Everybody who worked here was excited to work here. Every camper looked forward to climbing Hanging Rock."
One thing was clear Saturday night: Members of NBS and residents from all over Aquidneck Island hold this place close to their hearts and, in many cases, have passed on this reverence for generations.
Chairman of the Board Michael Hayes, a board member for almost fifteen years, joked that he genetically inherited his passion for protecting the environment from his father.
As for the annual event itself, said Hayes, "The most fun of the summer, 500 people, full dinner, silent auction, and great dancing. Food served all evening so people can eat anytime they like and sit anywhere they like with their friends."
Three generations of the Gunzelman family have been involved in the sanctuary as board members, camp counselors, and campers.
"It is a very unique and special place, truly a sanctuary in every sense of the word," said Jan Gunzelman, a retired Portsmouth Middle School teacher.
Her daughter was a camp counselor, she was a camp counselor, and her six-year-old grandson was a camper. During last year's Norman Bird Sanctuary 5k race, which takes place around Father's Day, four of five of her daughters ran the road race with their father.
Executive Director Natasha Harrison attended camp as a child and her first job was as a camp counselor. "Best summer of my life," she said.
Both her children attended camp there, and she continued to work for the sanctuary in various roles until becoming executive director. To sum up what the bird sanctuary represents to her, Harrison didn't hesitate: "Incredible team of thoughtful staff, (and) the bird sanctuary is a touch stone to so many people."
Harrison added, "We want to be as much as we can, to as many as we can."