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Volunteering at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

If you want to experience an underwater adventure daily at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, you can join the 600 volunteers who dedicate their time and efforts in various positions to complete vital functions.

“Volunteers are essential to the operation of the Aquarium,” Manager of Volunteer Programs Leslie Landsman said. “They have contributed $1 million worth of labor and time. Without their help it would be difficult to function.”

Marie Tillman has been a volunteer for 22 years. She began training in February 1981, six months before the Aquarium opened.

“The culture here, among both paid staff and volunteer staff, is one of learning and laughing,” Tillman said. “I do things I love to do: writing and teaching. I'm exactly where I want to be, doing just what I want to do.”

Tillman was a high school English teacher and had begun volunteering at the Maryland Science Center, also in Baltimore. Then she saw an advertisement for the Aquarium and decided to become a part of the new institution. The building was under construction when Tillman began her training.

“Everyone had to walk through with hardhats, and there was no Marine Mammal Pavilion,” she said.

Tillman started as an exhibit guide, but then she began working for the public relations department. Her favorite aspects of volunteering are writing, editing and proofreading. She also enjoys being in the Amazon River rainforest exhibit and teaching visitors about it.

Tillman said there are 70 different jobs including exhibit guides, information specialists, divers, aquarists, office assistants and more. Volunteers must be 18 years old, out of high school and willing to make at least a one-year commitment.

“As long as [volunteers] are over 18, everyone is the right age,” Tillman said. “We have people from 18 to over 80.” A summer program offers opportunities for those under 18.

Tillman is one of 26 volunteers who have stayed at the Aquarium since its opening. Landsman said it is “pretty amazing” to have such a high number of long-time volunteers. She added that 40 percent of the current volunteers have been at the Aquarium for five or more years.

Landsman said people want to become volunteers for a few different reasons. “Some [volunteers] want to meet people, others want to do something with their spare time and some just believe in what we are doing,” she said.

There are many benefits to becoming a volunteer. According to Tillman, the Aquarium is “like a family, and volunteers are ever and always learning.”

“[Volunteers] get to meet people from all over the world,” Tillman said. “There is free parking and social events. There are very nurturing environments and the paid staff are wonderful to work with.”

“There are people of all ages, sizes and colors,” she added. “The people themselves are amazing. We have firemen, policemen, ministers, lawyers and doctors. The diversity is amazing and fun.”

Barbara Frazier has been a volunteer exhibit guide since December 2002. She agrees with Tillman’s belief that volunteers are constantly learning and meeting new people.

“I like the Aquarium, and it’s a learning experience. I’m always learning something new,” Frazier said. “I like the people and I like talking to them.”

“The experience is rewarding for volunteers who work with the public,” Landsman said. “They get to teach about animals, interact with people from around the world and make friends and keep friends.”

The volunteers and paid staff often mesh, according to Tillman. She said many volunteers eventually become paid, and paid employees often volunteer in another capacity.

“If you have an interest in things aquatic and the planet Earth and care about it, we will teach everything you need to know,” Tillman said. “Everyone is trained.”

For more information about becoming a volunteer, call (410) 659-4274 or visit the Aquarium’s Web site.

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