By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
This is Volunteer Appreciation Week, which The Florida Aquarium has good cause to celebrate. Manager of Volunteer Services Chelsea Gomez says the 266 active volunteers “interact with guests, care for animals, dive in the exhibits” and are “involved in every single area in The Aquarium.”
Perhaps it is a stretch to say the Aquarium, which employs about 220 full and part-time workers, could not function without volunteers, but as Gomez says, “the volunteers make the difference between a good guest experience and a great one.” The volunteers also make The Aquarium efficient and economical. In the last quarter alone, Gomez says they accounted for 8,000 hours and saved the operation more than $150,000.
Volunteer ages range from 15 to 97, and Gomez says the primary requirements are that they are willing to work hard and that they are passionate about the Aquarium’s vision to “Protect and Restore the Blue Planet.”
It was the Aquarium’s dedication to marine resources that attracted Katie Hartwig (pictured below), a graduate student who began volunteering last year. She is pursuing an environmental education degree with a focus on raising awareness on how plastic debris harms ecosystems. At the Aquarium, with its exhibits that entertain and educate, she found “a reflection of what I hope to accomplish.”
She loves her “husbandry” work, where she maintains, displays and cares for animals. On any given day she might be cleaning the Wetlands exhibit, preparing food for the critters or assisting the Aquarium’s Center for Conservation researchers, who are working on growing corals at the Apollo Beach facility. She spends up to eight hours a week volunteering.
While Hartwig works in husbandry, other volunteers may work in education, guest services or in a variety of other assignments, including spotting dolphins during eco-tours of Tampa Bay. Gomez says volunteers are required to put in a minimum of eight hours a month and most average about four hours a week.
No background in marine science is necessary but all volunteers must go through safety and other training. The length of training, some of which can be done on-line, varies according to task. Sessions for those who will handle animals may take several months. There are no shortcuts.
Beyond working at the attraction, volunteers also can participate in the Aquarium’s conservation work, such as planting coastal vegetation or picking up litter from the shoreline. The minimum volunteer age is 15 and Gomez finds all volunteers, regardless of age, are equally enthusiastic. All are given meaningful work.
“Our volunteers have a wide variety of experience and some have amazing stories,” Gomez says. “They all bring a lot to the table.” The experience can be particularly helpful to students wanting to pursue a science career. They may be given a chance to assist the Aquarium’s biologists. “It’s all hands-on work,” Gomez says.
The Florida Aquarium’s need for volunteers increases along with attendance during the summer. It wants as many people as possible ready to assist visitors. The Aquarium’s website (www.flaquarium.org) provides information on how to become a volunteer.
This week, the Aquarium will show its appreciation to volunteers with a cruise, a reception and other activities. But most volunteers find their payoff comes during their time at the Aquarium. As Hartwig puts it, “It’s very enjoyable. The people are great. You escape the day-to-day routine, and you learn something new every day.”