When COVID-19 forced WonderLab’s closure in early March, our staff shifted into overdrive to begin creating digital content and other fun, educational resources for the Bloomington community. We quickly became aware of a highly impacted group that is also cut-off from the museum: the Discovery Coaches who make up WonderLab’s volunteer team. Volunteers offer their time and attention for a cause they believe in, but during the closure only essential staff is permitted in the museum, and others work remotely. Without opportunities in the museum, volunteers are unable to continue their vital connection with WonderLab. Between January 1 and December 31st, 2019, 608 Discovery Coaches volunteered a collective total of 17,618.15 hours across more than twenty different programs. Those hours quickly add up to a heap of person-to-person connection and science learning that is now missing from the lives of many. Despite these obstacles, we are striving to stay connected.

Benefits of Volunteering Go Beyond Merely Personal

There are many reasons why volunteering is beneficial, but the Mayo Clinic notes lowered risk for depression, reduced stress levels, and possibly a longer life among many others. Similarly important aspects of WonderLab’s volunteer program are the personal interactions and formative experiences gained during time at the museum. In his blog from May 2019 titled “WonderLab Life Lessons: A Service Learning Reflection” student volunteer Jeremiah Saxton notes that he, “did not realize that WonderLab would be so influential on visitors and volunteers alike, especially since I knew so little about it before my orientation.” When his class-required hours concluded, he remained engaged with WonderLab by volunteering on his own. Jeremiah’s blog speaks to WonderLab’s atmosphere of exploration and strong volunteer experience.

Discovery Coach Sarah Whaley, on right, explores the miniature biome capabilities of SandScapes with a crew of guests.

–READ MORE: WonderLab Life Lessons: A Service Learning Reflection–

Animal Care Takes on Human Needs in Addition to Museum Critters

A Discovery Coach for 14 years, Ted Unwin has been involved in numerous museum programs, from Science Night Out to assisting with any number of recurring events across the breadth of his nearly 2000 hours with WonderLab. His role has grown from a Discovery Coach working normal gallery shifts to helping the WonderLab Animal Care Team with husbandry and wellness tasks involving our animal ambassadors. WonderLab Marketing Director Aleisha Kropf “was first hired as the Animal Care Manager. When I arrived Ted was part of the Animal Care team. There was just me, Ted, and another single intern. Ted was a gem over the years. He taught me a lot about the position and a lot about how to be a strong, effective caregiver to our animals.” However Ted has been unable to enter the museum for his normal duties, requiring a bit of creative problem solving to ensure the animals and Ted are cared for while the museum is closed.

When Animal Care Manager Samantha Couch brainstormed ways Ted could continue to be involved while outside the building it became clear that one of our more active corn snakes, Snow, would benefit from some special attention. The decision to rehouse one of the animals into Ted’s home during the pandemic speaks to his dedication to the museum and a need for connection many feel during this isolation.

Ted Unwin and Samantha Couch haul Snow’s enclosure into Ted’s house to set up his quarantine companion.

“Ted has been handling Snow frequently, feeding him and maintaining his enclosure,” Sam noted, assuring that, “since we dropped Snow off, he has since fed and shed for Ted.” This is a great sign that Snow has settled in and is comfortable in this new arrangement. Ted has taken the opportunity to continue doing his important work with Snow, which provides them both with some extra company and care.

Ted and Snow sharing a hello just after unloading and setting up his habitat.

Community Takes Priority: Engaging Volunteers in Virtual Programming

WonderLab is also offering ways for volunteers to connect in a group setting while engaging in fun, enriching activities. Keeping volunteers tethered to the organization in this way not only enriches their lives, but encourages them to become more active in the community, as well as being more neighborly in general noted a study of volunteering statistics in 2018.

Sarah Ericson, Museum Experience Assistant Director, recently led a coffee and canvas opportunity over Zoom for Discovery Coaches and other staff.

Sarah Ericson, staff and volunteers share their projects from WonderLab’s first volunteer engagement program.

Everyone was encouraged to share and interact, even if they were just there for the community and not the coffee, while Sarah offered small instructions for painting tulips. Explaining why she zeroed in on this activity for the first engagement opportunity, Sarah said that “(l)eading them in a painting was a way to share a relaxing activity together and allow them to see their friends, something I know we all needed!” This first volunteer appreciation program saw good attendance and whether they simply sat in to video chat or engaged in painting, volunteers took advantage of the time to visit. “I selfishly wanted to see them, laugh, and catch up. I also wanted to thank them and let them know we miss them,” Sarah admitted. WonderLab’s volunteer department is planning future iterations of this program and working with partners to offer unique avenues for volunteers to stay engaged.

The benefits of having our volunteers is evident when seen daily within the museum as Discovery Coaches interact with guests. While certainly less visible during our closure, these relationships we have built remain strong. Staying connected to volunteers might require some flexibility, but it is of paramount importance to us at WonderLab because isolation and loneliness are on the rise during this public health crisis.

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About the Author:

Taylor Rickett is the Museum Experience Manager at WonderLab. He has a passion for working and connecting with volunteers. He has explored volunteer opportunities from assisting in libraries to coaching young athletes, finding them all equally fulfilling. Taylor’s interests run the gamut from Japanese vinyl collections to natural sciences to reading and numerous things between.