At your service: Military volunteers share their passion for all things aquatic
What do these four people have in common? For one thing, they love aquatic life. For another, they all served their country. They're part of the Military Volunteer Program (MVP) at Georgia Aquarium, open to active military, retired military and veterans of the United States Armed Forces.
MVP volunteers greet guests, assist them with directions and help them learn about the various galleries in this, the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere.
Volunteers also take part in two conservation service projects per year, digging deep (literally, in some cases) to help the local environment.
Click through to learn more and see some of the men and women in action.
Giving back, and getting in return
You can spot these volunteers by their red ribbons. Thanks to the ribbons, said Laura Griesser, manager of volunteer programs, "They’re able to recognize each other right away. And for guests who come in that are in the military or are veterans, there’s that instant connection."
The volunteers give their time to the Aquarium — and they also get something back.
“From the Aquarium side, it’s an opportunity to support the men and women who have given to our country in a way that some of us can’t or haven’t, and appreciate them and get them involved with our mission,” said Griesser.
On the volunteers' side, she noted, “For some of them, it’s assisting them to build skills. One individual recently was hired on with the Life Support team. It was an opportunity to work his way into getting a job.” For others, it's providing meaningful engagement during retirement.
The MVP program also offers the chance to bond with other like-minded individuals. "We try to make it really teamwork based," said Griesser.
The chance to connect
For Cassandra Robinson, who retired as a Master Sergeant after 32 years in the Army and was a medic during Desert Storm, the chance to interact with guests is one of the highlights of the program, along with the opportunity to learn more about the environment.
She loves seeing the look on the faces of kids and adults alike during the Waddle Walk, when trainers take African penguins on a stroll through the Atrium.
Witnessing the "wow"
John Anderson, who served as a U.S. Coast Guard Electrician's Mate 3rd Class from 1999 to 2003, teaches a high school special education class. "The Aquarium is a way for me to combine my love of teaching with my love of the ocean. I am able to take knowledge and experiences from the Aquarium and apply it in my classroom."
Among his favorite things about volunteering: Watching people's faces light up as they first set foot into the Ocean Voyager tunnel or see the enormous viewing window into the exhibit, nicknamed the "WOW" window.
Cherishing teaching moments
Arthur Southwick has seemingly done it all in the Air Force: Fly helicopters, monitor aircraft engines in flight and inspect and maintain nuclear weapons.
In addition, he said, "I'm a certified scuba diver, with a strong belief in saving the environment and its wildlife, on land or at sea." As a scuba diver, it's probably no surprise that his favorite gallery is Tropical Diver, where tropical coral reefs shelter creatures from tiny seahorses to garden eels to jellies and everyone's favorite, colorful clownfish.
"Any opportunity to teach is a favorite moment," said Southwick.
Promoting sea creatures large and small
"At the Aquarium I can promote nature and help others learn about protecting these majestic creatures," noted Tyler Miller, a cyberspace officer with the Air Force.
Among his favorite things about volunteering: "The smile on kids' faces when they see a whale shark for the first time."
Surprise and delight
Duff Phinney served as a United States Naval Rescue Swimmer and Aircrewman for roughly three years.
"I have always harbored a deep-seated love for the ocean due to having grown up three blocks from the beach and taken annual dive trips to the Florida Keys."
Phinney no doubt encountered plenty of surprises during his tenure as a rescue swimmer. Now, he delights in the surprises Aquarium guests experience. "My favorite part is seeing the sense of awe on the faces of people as they encounter and are educated in marine life they have never been exposed to before."
Planting trees for tomorrow
In addition to their work inside the Aquarium, MVP participants also volunteer on community service projects in the Atlanta area. Here, John Anderson (left) and Randall Praylow plant trees on Atlanta's Beltline.
The work can be physically demanding. "While digging
holes for trees on the Beltline, volunteers came across that great [hard] Georgia clay. They were like, 'No it’s fine, we’ve got this. Anything that you throw at us we can do.' These
guys never shy away from anything," said Griesser.
Cleaning up river banks
A group of military volunteers participated in Sweep the Hooch, a cleanup day on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. They dragged out everything from bottles and cans to car tires. Together with a group of youth volunteers, they removed about 80 bags of trash in one day.
The MVP program is now wrapping up its first year, and Griesser hopes to see it continue well into the future. "Allowing military members to come and volunteer for us at no cost to
them (we waive their volunteer fee) is something that is near and dear to my
heart and my entire team's heart," said Griesser. "There are really not that many programs like this."