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  • Writer's pictureLouise Casini Hollis

Volunteers Help the Virginia Living Museum Thrive

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Words by Louise Casini Hollis. Images courtesy of Virginia Living Museum.

Do you like to be involved with animals? Are you interested in plants? Well, you’re in luck because the Virginia Living Museum has opportunities for you to help promote and preserve the native plants and animals of Virginia through their education and conservation programs.

The Virginia Living Museum, a certified Service Enterprise, was founded through the vision of Harry Wason, the 22nd president of the Rotary Club of Warwick, with the aid of the Junior League of Hampton Roads. The museum opened November 13th, 1966 as the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium. Over the years, the museum added an observatory in 1975, and in 1987 it metamorphosed into the first Living Museum east of the Mississippi River. In 2016, they celebrated their 50th anniversary. “Our mission is connecting people to nature through educational experiences that promote conservation,” shared Shandran Thornburg, Executive Assistant & Volunteer Administrator for the Virginia Living Museum since 2003.

Mrs. Jackie Weber is talking to guests in our Ozone Garden about the effects of pollution on plant life.

Mrs. Jackie Weber is talking to guests in our Ozone Garden about the effects of pollution on plant life.

Shandran, along with the nearly 300 volunteers that help run the VLM, has a passion for conservation and education. However, because of COVID-19, the museum was unable to welcome visitors and volunteers until recently. Fortunately, the VLM’s full time staff of 35 stepped in to cover the volunteer staff’s duties to ensure that all of the museum ran smoothly. “Our focus is the safety and the welfare of the animals,” assured Shandran, “So, we had staff in different departments [who] worked together and pitched in to care for our animals to just make sure our care was top-rate during that time.” The VLM, also had a steady virtual presence. “Our educators and people that are in the curator positions to care for the animals did a lot of online programming [such as] Facebook Live and ‘Quaran-stream’,” added Shandran.

The closure also put a crimp in a few of the Museum’s plans. National Volunteer’s Week was in April, and Shandran still wanted to honor her hard working volunteers. “We did it virtually!” she proudly states. “What happened was different departments just did a quick video telling volunteers thank you. One department did it like a ‘Brady Bunch’ kind of thing and had it all on one screen. Our Marketing department helped pull it together and add some music to the videos and things like that and during that week each day we released a live video that we put on the website.” You can see their tributes here.

Another obstacle they overcame was mounting the Spring Plant Sale. The museum wound up moving the sale online, and set up a drive-through pickup of the plants in May. “People could buy their plants online and we worked out a system where basically we would have the paperwork. We would assign the people a time and they ordered and they paid for it online. That was a feat of epic proportions to input the scientific names of all the plants,” said Shandran. Currently, they plan to offer their Fall Plant Sale in person. “We don’t know what the virus is going to do, obviously – we’re just looking to determine if that’s going to be continued in that form or if there will be more of an in-person thing. I just think that we’ll have to continue to watch the Coronavirus to determine what forms that’s going to take,” she said. The Fall Plant Sale is scheduled to be held mid-September with their member preview on September 17th. The general public has opportunities to purchase plants September 19th- 20th and the 26th-27th. Please check the VLM’s website for current information.

Virginia Gall is showing a whelk at the touch tank.

Virginia Gall is showing a whelk at the touch tank.

Practically, the VLM made the most of their closure taking the opportunity to deep clean carpets and give some exhibits a good power washing. It also gave them the time to prepare for their reopening by prepping for increased cleaning protocols and to create one-way paths with signs. Organizationally, Shandran was able to move forward restructuring volunteer interactions with their assigned departments. “If they have to call out for a herpetology shift, there’s no reason they couldn’t just call their direct supervisor. So really we were already thinking about making this move and then when COVID hit, obviously that accelerated that line of thinking to create efficiency,” shares Thornburgh. They have also moved to cycles of on-boarding, to enhance volunteer’s experiences. “By having cycles, there will be a volunteer cohort several times a year. So they will get to bond with each other because they’re going to be attending training classes together in a cohort versus going into all different parts of the museum. Their cohort will be a little bit smaller, and then they will be more integrated in with their direct team. So we think it’s going to give a lot more individualized attention to the volunteers. I think that’s a really good positive step,” observed Shandran. The VLM has just closed their fall cohort class, but applications for the winter cohort will be due November 15th.

Starting at age 11, children can begin to volunteer with a parent or guardian. At age 15 students may volunteer without the supervision of an adult and at 18 volunteers can apply to take part in the caretaking of the animals. Children need a letter of recommendation, and anyone 18 or over requires a background check at the cost of $12.50. Shandran does her best to match volunteer’s availability with their departmental interest.

“Our Executive Director [Rebecca Kleinhample] basically has a vision of children coming into our classroom programs,” Shandran explains. “Then when they are 11 they can come in and volunteer with an adult, and they can volunteer by themselves at age 15 and perhaps if they go to college locally they could come back and do an internship as a college student. Perhaps when they graduate or when they’re still in college they could even potentially get a job here at the museum. So that is what we want to do, and the goal is growing the next generation of conservation leaders.” The VLM has done an excellent job of cultivating tomorrow’s conservationists, and it shows in their staff. “Forty-three percent of museum staff started their VLM career as a volunteer. That’s a very high rate,” adds Shandran.

“Part of what we do is sustainability,” Shandran observes. “The museum is poised to lead into the future. We are trying to grow the next generation of conservation leaders.” But conservation is not all the VLM promotes. Larry Lewis, a former math and Science professor at Thomas Nelson Community College, has been volunteering at the Virginia Living Museum for over 9 years. He was integral in getting the Spring Plant Sale organized and serves as the co-coordinator of Frogwatch USA at the VLM. “It is a cliche,” writes Larry, “but I feel that I get more from volunteering than the museum gets from me. I get educational training, enjoyment working with like-minded people, and opportunities for connecting our guests to nature.”

Hailey Fisher is engaging guests with an artifact - a raccoon pelt on our Outdoor Trail.

Hailey Fisher is engaging guests with an artifact – a raccoon pelt on our Outdoor Trail.

This enthusiasm permeates the VLM. Education Director Nicole Burns eloquently describes their mission: “As stewards of our one planet we focus on highlighting the importance of all living and nonliving things, create understanding on how they all interconnect and communicate the science behind how human behaviors can both positively and negatively affect this balance. Our educational mission encompasses the biodiversity of the depth of the ocean to sustainable human exploration in outer space and everything in-between. No matter what your interest is, we hope our guests leave our educational programs empowered to make a positive change.”

“We know that we are built by the community, sustained by the community and beloved by the community,” notes Shandran. So whether you come as a guest or as a volunteer, you are bound to take home a better idea of how to help our planet.

Want to help the Virginia Living Museum but don’t have time to volunteer? You can go for a visit, purchase a membership, give a monetary donation, or give a gift in kind located on the museum’s website. Volunteer applications can be found here.

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