Maria ‘Mia’ Leone
Aug. 22, 1961 — Sept. 6, 2023
By Jane Bartnett
Visitors to the Siesta Key Visitor Center had a good chance of being greeted by Maria “Mia” Leone, who served for more than eight years as the center’s manager and coordinator of its volunteers.
Talk about a good first impression.
“We lost a dear friend and colleague,” said Ann Frescura, executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce where the Visitor Center is located, regarding Leone’s recent passing. “Mia was a joy to work with and called everybody friend. She was a key part of our team and the visitor experience.”
Leone’s untimely death at the age of 62, following a brief and sudden illness, brought tremendous sadness to everyone at the chamber and the many people whose lives she touched in the Siesta Key community.
“We are absolutely heartbroken to share that Mia Leone passed away Sept. 6 … Mia was beloved by all and a tremendous asset to our community and chamber family. We are grateful to have known and worked with Mia and will always remember her bright smile, infectious laugh, kindness and fun-loving personality,” wrote Frescura and Mike Gatz, the chamber’s board of directors chairman, in a letter to the community.It was Leone who oversaw the important work of the many loyal volunteers, some of whom have been volunteering for more than 20 years. These individuals staff the Visitor Center’s front desk and support other chamber events that take place throughout the year.
“She was always optimistic and happy — a positive, loving, caring person both to people and Mia’s beloved doggies.,” said Sharon Rivera, a longtime volunteer, of Leone. “I feel that Mia was the No. 1 ambassador of Siesta Key and an amazing member of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce’s world-class staff.
“We will always remember you for your smile and your hard hugs.”
And it was Leone who the volunteers turned to when they needed help to answer a visitor’s question. Training, supervising and scheduling them was Leone’s mission. Frescura noted that Leone also made sure that her volunteers were “quick on their feet,” and able to address a broad range of topics.
In the days and weeks before her passing, Leone devoted a great amount of time and effort to planning ahead and laying the groundwork for the hundreds of volunteers who will staff this month’s annual four-day Siesta Key Crystal Classic International Sand Sculpting Festival. The Crystal Classic, taking place Nov. 10-13 on Siesta Beach, was Leone’s largest and most cherished project. It draws thousands of visitors from around the world.
“Each year, Mia recruited and managed over 300 volunteers,” said Frescura. “She was the point person for all the volunteers.”
A native of Grove City, Pennsylvania, Leone joined the chamber staff on June 13, 2015.
Speaking of Leone’s unique role, Frescura explained the dual objectives of the office. “We’re unique in that we’re a chamber but the active visitor center makes us a hybrid since we’re an award-winning tourist destination. Our volunteers are an integral part of the organization,” she said.
“All the volunteers loved and respected Mia,” added Frescura. “We all bring something to the table, but we all worked well together as a team. Mia was a key part of our team.” Leone also attended and took part in all chamber events, both large and small. “Regardless of our needs, Mia was always there to reach out to her volunteers and to find staffing when we needed their help,” Frescura said.
At this year’s Crystal Classic event, the memory of Leone and the impact that she made will be on the minds and hearts of all of her co-workers, Siesta Key chamber members, her friends and family, and the many volunteers. A photo display before a large sandcastle to honor her is planned for the event.
“The committee decided to accept donations on her behalf that will be donated to the Humane Society of Sarasota. Mia loved animals and especially her dogs, Lily and Norman,” said Frescura.
And Frescura made it a point to reference something meaningful at Leone’s work station.
“Mia had a poem at her desk called ‘Why Be a Volunteer,’ said Frescura. “It speaks volumes. She believed in what volunteerism is.”
Why be a Volunteer?
It’s not for the money, it’s not for the fame
And it’s not for any personal gain
It’s just for the love of fellow man
It’s just to lend a helping hand
It’s just to give a tithe of self
That’s something you can’t buy with wealth
It’s that reward down in your heart
It’s feeling that you’ve been a part
Of helping others far and near.
That’s what makes you a volunteer