Family Volunteering: Fueling a Tradition of Service
As part of our ongoing series of case studies, this newsletter features the story of family volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific. The Aquarium currently has nearly 180 individuals volunteering through the family volunteering program, which represents 70 different families, comprised of parents or legal guardians and their children. JFFixler Group’s Beth Steinhorn (BMS) interviewed Sean Devereaux (SD), Manager of Volunteer Services at the Aquarium.
How did family volunteering get started at the Aquarium? Why was the program initiated?
Our Aquarium opened its doors in 1998. Within the first few years, individuals began approaching the volunteer department asking about family volunteer opportunities. In response, the Aquarium began investigating the idea. The program started out small and slow, but in recent years, it has grown to be one of our showcase programs.
What were some of the early challenges?
Training was certainly one of the first challenges we needed to address. At the time, our training and onboarding process for volunteers was much lengthier than our current process. In fact, we required roughly 80 hours of training of our volunteers. Many questioned whether the children would be able to attend all the trainings with their parents. The solution at that point was to have the parents “homeschool” the children. It was an acceptable solution – but the program lacked momentum.
Shortly after I assumed my current position about six years ago, I noticed an interaction between an 8-year old volunteer and a visitor of similar age. The interaction was truly magical. The young visitor was able to get so much more depth of knowledge than if he had interacted with an adult because the kids spoke to each other in a common language. It was remarkable.
I wasn’t the only one who was noticing that magic. The Aquarium as a whole recognized the value of peer-to-peer learning. So we began marketing family volunteering as a valuable and integral program for our volunteer corps.
What barriers did you have to overcome to expand the program?
Fortunately, one of the biggest barriers – training – was something we were reviewing for all volunteers. We recognized that the most important learning moments for new volunteers occurred through peer-to-peer learning with other volunteers, through mentoring and shadowing. It didn’t matter how many facts we delivered through formal training, the keys to volunteer success are interpretive skills and learning from other volunteers who have been on the floor. So, we reduced training from 80 hours to 24 hours of classwork and instituted a shadowing process with individualized check-ins for readiness. With only 24 hours of class time, children could now participate in the training along with the adult. They are a team from beginning to end.
In recent years, the program has just snowballed. We have become more open to having families as volunteers, which makes them more visible to the public, and that, in turn, inspires more interest.
What benefits have you seen as a result of this program? For the volunteers? For the visitors?
There’s no doubt that our investment has paid off in a number of ways. In addition to the peer-to-peer learning that I’ve already mentioned, having family volunteers means that our volunteer corps reflects our visitorship in terms of age and ethnicities – people recognize themselves in the people who are teaching in our exhibits.
Meanwhile, the benefit for the families has been truly remarkable. Clearly, volunteering together strengthens family bonds. Parents become connected to their children in new ways and vice versa. The value of service becomes ingrained in the children and they become life-long volunteers. We have many children who have “aged out” of the family volunteer program who now choose to volunteer as an adult or through our teen program. Whether they continue with the Aquarium or not, I truly believe they’ll be civic-minded adults.
Where are you taking the program from here?
We are always looking for additional ways for families to participate. The program started with families working in interpretive positions only, but recently we have expanded the program to include some horticulture opportunities. For a period of time, we had to turn a few families away because one of the family members was not a “people” person, yet they wanted to provide some service to the Aquarium and the community. In response, we looked around internally to identify some behind-the-scenes opportunities. Horticulture was the natural choice. Of the 178 individuals in our family volunteer program, about 8 are involved in horticulture. While this is a small number, it is very important we have this option. For example, the horticulture option became a natural fit for parents with children who have cognitive disabilities.
Through these volunteer positions, the children gain the skills of having a job, learn to value hands-on work, and be part of a community.
This is one example of how we try to be responsive to suggestions or requests from our community. We are never opposed to hearing new ideas and accommodating community needs.
What is your advice to other organizations considering establishing or expanding their family volunteering opportunities?
Don’t succumb to fear or trepidation. For many organizations, family volunteering can be uncharted territory. At first, we had concerns about liability, but we came to realize that common sense – along with a strict rule that the children must stay with their adults at all times – could overcome those risks.
For our Aquarium, family volunteering has only enriched our program. The community has expressed a desire for this type of program and it’s our responsibility to explore the options to respond. Everyone who volunteers becomes an advocate for the Aquarium and it only strengthens our connection to the city in which we live.
For more information visit http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/volunteer/family_volunteering
The Aquarium onboards new volunteers seasonally, so please check the website for the schedule and more information.