Volunteers help keep aquarium afloat

Hundreds show deep commitment to wildlife, environment

  • Lucy Breslow, 60, a retired internist, has been a volunteer at the National Aquarium since 2009. She was educating visitors to the exhibit, "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes," where a fresh water crocodile was on view behind her.
Lucy Breslow, 60, a retired internist, has been a volunteer… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
March 19, 2011|By Nancy Jones Bonbrest, The Baltimore Sun

Whether it's diving to feed stingrays, creating terrariums, interpreting exhibits or inspiring visitors about conservation, volunteers at the National Aquarium in Baltimore make a measurable impact.

The hours they contributed last year equal 53 full-time jobs, a value of $2.4 million. And even with a slumping economy, overall service was up 5 percent in 2010 compared with the past three years.

"It was a record year. These are jobs we never have to pay for because volunteers have stepped up," said Nancy Hotchkiss, senior director of visitor experiences at the National Aquarium.

In 2010, the National Aquarium hosted 853 volunteers and interns, who logged a record of almost 117,000 hours. They range from the youngest at 14 years old to the oldest at 91. And they help with every aspect, from assisting the information desk to grass plantings to animal rescue.

"Our volunteer managers work their magic to create these experiences that are tailored to everyone who walks through that door and wants to volunteer," said Hotchkiss. "We will find your niche."

More than 40 percent of the volunteer staff has donated their time for more than five years. There are 18 charter volunteers, those from the first class trained 30 years ago, still on board.

Barbara Weaver is one. For almost 30 years she has spent many Friday nights at the aquarium assisting visitors, a dedication that has helped her to log more than 2,800 volunteer hours.

"I have always been a beachcomber," said Weaver. "So when the aquarium was advertising they needed volunteers, it sounded like something for me. If you had to summarize my feelings about volunteering in one word, it would be 'fun.'"

Weaver works as a shift captain, filling in where help is needed at the various exhibits.

"The thing that is constant over the years is the feeling that the visitor is first," she said. "It has just been a great experience. They treat the volunteers professionally."

Paul Jendrek first volunteered as an exhibit guide, but the certified diver soon began also donating his time as a diver. One day every other week he joins a team of volunteer divers who help hand-feed the inhabitants of the Wings in the Water and Atlantic Coral Reef exhibits.

"I enjoy the interaction with the animals. It's quite different than you would get in the wild," said Jendrek, who views his service as giving back to the community. "It's fun for me, but it's also a contribution.".

It was Lucy Breslow's interest in nature and the environment that led her to begin volunteering at the aquarium in late 2009 after she retired from her job as a physician.

"The aquarium seemed like a place where I could learn as well as hopefully educate visitors about conservation and the exhibits we have at the aquarium," she said.

To become a volunteer, those interested must fill out an application, be interviewed and trained. Breslow said the training ensures that the volunteers are prepared and confident.

"They try to make sure there's a comfort level in dealing with the public and educating them," she said, adding that the best part for her is meeting the visitors. "In one afternoon I met a family from Russia, from Colombia, from Italy and France."

Although the aquarium volunteer staff is full for the spring, applications are being accepted for volunteers in fall. The aquarium also has continuing conservation events, including Fort McHenry Field Day on April 16, when volunteers age 14 and up will restore habitat for wildlife, remove debris and maintain trails at the national monument.

On April 20, volunteers will head to the Nassawango Creek Preserve on the Eastern Shore to help plant Atlantic white cedars in the preserve's freshwater wetlands.

For more information on volunteering at the aquarium, visit aqua.org and check out the section "get involved."

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