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Aquarium Volunteers: A Driving Force to Protect and Restore Our Blue Planet

This is National Volunteer Appreciation Week and The Florida Aquarium is honoring its more than 300 volunteers with a series of activities, including a sunset cruise on the Aquarium Bay Spirit II, a 72-foot catamaran. The Aquarium has good cause for the annual celebration.  

Aquarium Volunteer Services Manager Chelsea Gomez called the volunteers “an amazing group of people with a wide variety of life experiences and skills who are generous enough to share them with us.” They range in age from teens to seniors and “help every day to educate our guests, maintain our exhibits, care for animals, promote and facilitate our events, and share our mission with the community …”

In the last fiscal year, Gomez said, volunteers logged almost 40,000 hours at the Aquarium, which equates to $900,000 worth of service.

 

Gomez and the Aquarium staff understandably want to “shower” volunteers with appreciation this week, which is National Volunteer Appreciation Week. However, Aquarium personnel also try to engage volunteers throughout the year, regularly welcoming them to conservation presentations, training courses and social events. 

 

Yet talk to some of the volunteers and you will find they believe their experiences are reward enough for the time and labor they devote to the Aquarium. Consider Carolyn Coy, who assists visitors on boat tours and also on “the floor” inside the attraction:

 

“I love being around people,” the one-time kindergarten teacher said. “And the little kids are so inspiring. Some, of course, zip right to the playground, but some can’t learn enough about what they are seeing. When you can teach a new fact, it’s really neat.” Coy, the mother of Aquarium Vice President of Operations Casey Coy, has devoted 25,000 hours to the Aquarium in the last 10 years. 


Coy moved to Tampa from Colorado, where she handled ticket sales at the University of Colorado Athletic Department for 20 years. So she knows dealing with the public can be dicey. Yet she rarely encounters an unpleasant Aquarium visitor.
“It is interesting what people will want to talk about,” Coy said. “It can be the animals, but it can be football or baseball or kids.” Coy loves the diverse conversations, but she never loses interest in the surrounding marine life.   


The 79-year-old said with the Aquarium training and the biologists who are always ready to help with difficult questions, “You are always learning something new.”
Frantz Merveus, a 17-year-old Newsome High School student, only recently began volunteering. But he finds his time at The Aquarium equally involving.

“Marine life has fascinated me since I was little, he said. “I have a particular admiration for sharks.” 

Merveus is undergoing the training required of new volunteers but already is interacting with guests. He marvels that he now works where he can constantly observe the sharks and other spectacular sea creatures.

 

Merveus thought The Florida Aquarium “would be a great place to learn about cool animals and get some volunteer work in,” and he hasn’t been disappointed. He explained that he enjoys talking with visitors, noting, “Some are really funny and can teach you a thing or two.”

 

And you never know who might walk through the door. The other day, Merveus was delighted to meet Tampa Bay Buccaneer cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, III.

 

Lexie Scott, an International Baccalaureate student at Hillsborough High School, began volunteering at the Aquarium last summer and has served as an assistant camp counselor and as a junior educator. The 16-year-old is impressed by how much The Florida Aquarium values young people’s perspectives. She serves on its recently formed Teen Council.

 

Scott explained of the Council, “This means I meet monthly with the group, and we plan outreach activities, as well as service activities. We have already completed one cleanup and are planning to attend more events.”

 

Scott plans to pursue a career in conservation and is enthusiastic about “helping spread the Aquarium’s message to other youth around Tampa Bay.”

 

She said her Aquarium experience has “strengthened my public speaking and has given me the confidence I need to excel in academics and beyond.”

 

Scott acknowledged that dealing with the public can be “exhausting,” but helping guests “connect with the environment” makes it all worthwhile.

 

“My favorite part is when kids get that look of pure awe on their faces upon seeing a real crocodile skull or otter skin, before loudly proclaiming their love for all animals,” Scott said. “Sparking an interest in the environment is one of the most meaningful experiences.”

 

Bill Livingston has been volunteering since an Aquarium official spoke to his dive club 20 years ago. He has always loved exploring Florida’s waters, and he admired The Florida Aquarium’s commitment to conservation. So, he decided to give volunteering a try and loved it. 


Early on, the 83-year-old Lakeland resident used to don SCUBA gear to clean tanks. But he has done numerous other tasks. 


“The staff is great about helping you find a job, and you can change if you want,” Livingston said. “It’s not like with a permanent job. You can move around and find what you want to do.”


He also participated in Aquarium-sponsored clean-up efforts, such as picking up trash after the Gasparilla Parade. Now Livingston works on weekend boat tours, where visitors view dolphins and other wildlife. The native Floridian gets a kick out of seeing kids thrill at the sight of wild dolphins.


Livingston finds most visitors are “great people,” and he said the naturalists are always ready to deal with any tough questions that arise. And there are often delightful surprises, such as the time a young man proposed to his girlfriend on the boat.


Volunteer Services Manager Gomez said Aquarium volunteers are asked to commit to a minimum of six months of work, which will enable them to receive “all the training they need to feel comfortable in their roles.” However, there no specific prerequisites required to become a volunteer – “only that they are passionate about our mission and vision to protect and restore our blue planet.”


The volunteers appear equally passionate about both the blue planet and The Florida Aquarium.
 

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.