Kim and Ernie are part of the MDC SWAT team

Ernie and Kim Massa have been volunteering at the Marine Discovery Center since at least 2010 or 2011. To say they are mainstay volunteers is an understatement.

They have helped run MDC information tents, collect shoreline trash, plant seedlings in the restored salt marsh, build oyster bags, move fish tanks, transport the archery area across campus, assist with a manatee stranding, run the beer taps for MDC events, participate in shoreline restoration and monitoring, and work with the MDC grounds crew.

If there is a needed volunteer duty at the center, they have likely done it.

Read more about the Massas in MDC’s February 2021 Volunteer Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa Mickey:

Q: How long have you been married?
A: (Together) 32 years in June.

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: (Ernie) I grew up in Newburgh, N.Y., which is up in the Hudson Valley near West Point.
(Kim) I was born in New Jersey, but grew up in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Q: Where did you go to college and what did you study?
A: (Ernie) Georgia Tech and I studied management.
(Kim) Georgia Tech and I studied information and computer science, and minored in engineering psychology.

Q: Are you both now retired?
A: (Ernie) I’m semi-retired. I’m still consulting with the company I’ve worked for my entire career.
(Kim) I’m mostly retired, but I may go back to work part time.

Q: What did you do in your career?
A: (Ernie) I worked in accounting. I reconcile a main bank account, handle allocations between our offices and handle all of their depreciation and capital assets. When I left and told them I was moving to Florida, they asked if I could help them out for about six months and it’s been 10 years now.
(Kim) I worked for the same guy for about 20 years when we moved down here. I was working as a consultant for them when his company got bought out and then they let us all go a year and a half ago. If I work anymore, it won’t be full time.

Q: Where did you meet?
A: (Ernie) At Georgia Tech.

Q: You seem like best friends. You are always together.
What’s the secret?

A: (Kim) I have no idea. Maybe a sense of humor.
(Ernie) A sense of humor and respect.
(Kim) We always say if we’re asked to show up and the other one is not there, nobody would recognize us. Chad calls us the “Dynamic Duo.”

Kim & Ernie at Mardi Gras

Q: When did you move to Florida?
A: (Ernie) We bought our condo here in 1998, moved here from Atlanta in 2007, and split time going back and forth. We sold our house in Atlanta in 2009, and have been here full time ever since.

Q: Don’t you travel quite a bit?
A: (Ernie) Yes. We still rent out our condo here for part of the year and joke that we are homeless for several months, but it helps pay for the travel.

Q: Were you able to travel in 2020?
A: (Ernie) Yes, we actually traveled to Civil War battle fields in Virginia. We thought that would be a great way to be socially distant and we wanted to still be able to get in a lot of walking. We drove in our Mustang convertible.

Q: Where do you like to travel?
A: (Kim) We tend to do the U.S.
(Ernie) We have traveled abroad a lot, but Kim doesn’t like to fly. We’ve cruised in the Caribbean.
(Kim) We did fly to Australia, the Galapagos Islands, and we went to Machu Picchu. I’ll fly to those places.

Q: Will you travel this year?
A: (Ernie) We’ll be gone for the month of April. We’re thinking about exploring the Great River Road along the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Minnesota.
(Kim) We’re not going to make any reservations and just see how things are going.

Q: Is there a bucket-list travel destination?
A: (Kim) We hope to travel to Antarctica for my 60th birthday in 2½ years. It will be on a smaller cruise ship so we can get out in a Zodiac boat. I want to see the penguins.
(Ernie) Of course, we could also go to South Africa to see penguins. That would be the easy route.

Q: How did you get involved at MDC?
A: (Kim) We wanted to figure out how to meet people once we moved here, so we started volunteering when MDC was across the street on the North Causeway. We’re into conservation and the environment and when we moved here, we took some of the boat and kayak trips. We actually went out and bought kayaks after that,
(Ernie) We liked that people at MDC were into nature and being outdoors. It looked like a good place to establish friends and get involved. We helped pick up trash early on. We also volunteered in MDC’s information booth at street festivals and once the oyster recycling program started in 2013, we got heavily involved with that.
(Kim) We always helped with MDC’s Christmas float in the Christmas parade, as well as the Christmas boat parade. There was no budget to decorate the boat, so we brought all of our old Christmas lights from Atlanta to help out.

Q: And now, you are proudly wearing your MDC S.W.A.T. (Site Action Work Teams) shirts, which means you do what?
A: (Ernie) We pull weeds, trim and mulch on the MDC campus and do whatever is needed.

Q: You’ve done a lot of different things here. What do you enjoy the most?
A: (Kim) I like the oyster restoration the best. It’s fun to see how many oyster bags we can bag in a day and it’s great to save the shells from going into the landfill. I like filling the bags here and then going out in the lagoon to distribute them in shoreline restoration projects. We travel so much we can’t always be here every time, but we fill in when we can.

Q: Oyster bagging is labor intensive. Do you enjoy the physical aspect of that?
A: (Ernie) We do! It’s really my only form of exercise.
(Kim) We used to joke and say we were getting in shape with MDC. We’ve moved those heavy picnic tables [on the pavilion] and helped prep for events.
(Ernie) We used to man the bar for the old Tailgatin’ party. One year, the kegs got shaken up in transporting them …
(Kim) And they were the worst taps ever! [Laughter]

Q: What do you enjoy about volunteering at MDC?
A: (Ernie) Just getting together with the people. It’s a great group. There’s a lot of satisfaction in doing something that maybe makes a little bit of a difference. You can actually see some progress that has been made after a day of work.
(Kim) We helped plant the spartina grass when the salt marsh was being restored behind MDC and we helped place the sod on the observation mound.
(Ernie) We were on our hands and knees in the mud out in the marsh when all of those plants were planted.
(Kim) And we helped move the archery area frame with Bob and Linda Campbell when it relocated [to adjacent to the nature play area]. We even got trained on how to help with dolphin necropsies. Fortunately, we haven’t had to do that.

Kim (in tie-dye) and Ernie (just to her right, facing the camera) Helping Rescue a Manatee

​Q: What has been the highlight of volunteering at MDC?
A: (Kim) Hands down, getting to help rescue stranded manatees [on J-hook Island] in 2013. That was just amazing! But overall, the real highlight is working with the other people.
(Ernie) It’s a good group — an amazing staff an an amazing volunteer group. Everyone sort of pitches in to help how they can.

(Kim) We don’t always get to see them a lot, but it’s always nice to run into staff who are no longer here or other volunteers. We always look forward to seeing them.

Q: How do you like contributing to MDC’s mission in the community?
A: (Kim) Just seeing MDC grow over the years and how everyone knows what it is now. We’ve had friends come visit from out of town and bring their kids to MDC’s summer camps. And we can’t wait to see what MDC does with that amphitheater. It’s going to be a nice resource for this community.

Q: How have you seen MDC grow?
A: (Kim) It’s been fun to see MDC grow from the time we were across the Causeway in the trailers to now at a center with a salt marsh and an amphitheater.
(Ernie) It’s amazing to see how it’s progressed over the years. You walk into the center and see these huge fish tanks – which one of them, we helped move! We’ve been around long enough to remember when one trailer was the gift shop and offices, and one trailer was the classroom. Add the boat, and that’s all MDC was.
(Kim) And when volunteers were needed, sometimes when we showed up, we were the only people there. Now, just on the S.W.A.T. team, there must have been a dozen of us out there working.

Q: Why do you want to give up your time volunteering?
A: (Ernie) I think it’s fun to be out here doing something that helps MDC and maybe even helps the environment.
(Kim) And we get to give back to the community. I wish we could volunteer more. So many people put in many hours. We don’t ever feel like we put in enough time. We love volunteering here.

Q: Do you have other hobbies?
A: (Kim) I feel like one of mine is training for breast cancer walks. I do them every year. I’m a breast cancer survivor. In July, it will be my five-year mark. I was diagnosed in 2016.

Q: That must have been a shock.
A: (Kim) We had been here for a while, but we were just starting to meet people. It was interesting going through that whole process in my treatment. I remember getting back into the lagoon with Dr. Donnelly of UCF. We were doing some shoreline surveys and she asked who wanted to get into the water? It had been about a year and half since I had been in the lagoon because of chemo, surgery and radiation, so when she asked, I told her that I wanted to go into the lagoon! That was one of the first things I wanted to do when I was able. I had also always wanted to do a breast cancer walk in New York and was going to finally do it in 2016, but I had to cancel because I had breast cancer. I was eight weeks out of surgery when I finally did a breast cancer walk in 2017.

Q: Are you still participating in breast cancer walks?
A: (Kim) Yes. We like to do one in Georgia that is 30 miles over two days and you stay in a Marriott instead of a tent. Last year, they held it as a virtual walk because we couldn’t all gather [due to Covid], so we walked five miles on six different days here.

Q: How did you initially deal with that bad news?
A: (Kim) We approached it with a sense of humor. Just kind of, “What do we do next? And how do we do it?”
(Ernie) Early on, we had a conversation and agreed that we could stay put and try to eke it out or we could go on with our plans. We already had plans to travel to the national parks out west. Kim said she wanted to travel for as long as we could, so we did.
(Kim) After I finished chemo, we traveled to California in the Mustang. We went to national parks. Normally, we hike a lot, but that time, we went to the scenic views, walked 100 feet and looked around. When we got back home, I had surgery a week after we returned.

Q: Do you think being analytical helped you get through cancer?
A: (Ernie) Yes, it helped us digest the information. We learned that we were more resilient than we thought. I thought when I learned that news that I would just be devastated and unable to function, but we muddled through it and kept going.
(Kim) We were able to take each step as it came along. Chemo first, then surgery, and so on. We kept a positive attitude and that helped, along with family and friends.
(Ernie) Her family swarmed in and took care of things. They took care of me and I was able to take care of Kim.

Q: Looking ahead five years from now, do you still want to be here pulling weeds and lifting oyster shell bags?
A: (Kim) Absolutely! As long as we can do it, we’ll keep coming back.
(Ernie) Especially if they ever say they need help with a manatee stranding!

Kim and Ernie in Celebration Mode