People Power

In honor of National Volunteer Week, get to know four dedicated field conservation volunteers who make significant contributions to the Aquarium's work to combat climate change, stop plastic pollution, and save wildlife and habitats.

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When the National Aquarium holds field conservation events, volunteers get the work done. They plant wetland grasses in Baltimore County, Atlantic white cedar saplings on the Eastern Shore and dune grasses in Virginia Beach. They remove debris from the waterways and shorelines at Masonville Cove and Fort McHenry in Baltimore City.

"Every person who comes out contributes and makes a difference; we could not do what we do without them," National Aquarium Conservation Technician Hallie Carter said.

Some volunteers at these events, though, go above and beyond.

"We have some event volunteers who are regulars; they help at several conservation field events throughout the year," Hallie said. "We also have Aquarium Conservation Team (ACT) volunteers who show up early to help set up, stay late to help clean up, and are responsible for leading and instructing groups of event volunteers in the field."

National Volunteer Week, which is April 16 to 22 this year, is a time to recognize the impact of volunteer service and the power of volunteers to tackle society's greatest challenges. In honor of National Volunteer Week, we're highlighting four National Aquarium field conservation volunteers who show up again and again, making significant contributions to the Aquarium's work to combat climate change, stop plastic pollution, and save wildlife and habitats.

We asked these four volunteers—Nicki Castagna, James Lee, Marcia Lyon and Barry Menne—some questions about their volunteer work with the Aquarium.

Volunteer Nicki Castagna Holds a Clipboard and Takes Notes in Front of a Wetland
Nicki Castagna at Masonville Cove.

Nicki Castagna

Nicki Castagna was born and raised in Baltimore City and now lives in Harford County. She's been an Aquarium volunteer since 1997—in Upland Tropical Rain Forest, with the Animal Health team, the dive program, National Aquarium Animal Rescue and more—and has been an ACT volunteer since 2013 or 2014. She said the Aquarium's mission aligns with her passion and personal mission, so giving her time as a volunteer just feels like the right thing to do. "I like getting my hands and khakis dirty, helping to do some good," she said.

Question: What Aquarium conservation events do you take part in?

Answer: I've participated in various events with ACT over the years, mainly restoration projects, cleanup events and some BioBlitzes. My favorite event is the semi-annual field day at Fort McHenry. I get to combine all the things I love—being in my favorite place in all of Baltimore City with all its history, and getting to witness the surprise and wonder of first-time community volunteers when we take them into the wetland. Many have no idea that this type of habitat exists in Baltimore City and that it's home (or a pit stop) for so many different animal species.

Question: Are there any particular moments as an Aquarium volunteer that stand out in your memory?

Answer: This is a tough one to answer since I've been a volunteer here for over 25 years and have had the privilege to work in many different departments! Around 2000, we released a rehabbed seal on Long Island, and a National Geographic crew filmed the entire event from start to finish. My role was to monitor the seal during the long drive from Pier 4 to Montauk. I wore an orange safety jumpsuit the entire time and I think all they caught of me on film was my orange derriere bending over doing something with the seal. During that trip, we toured the marine rescue facility in Riverhead, New York, and that is where I met dear Calypso the green sea turtle as she was rehabbing. It was about a year later when it was decided she was non-releasable and would be coming to live at the Aquarium. I volunteered to drive to pick her up. Calypso was definitely my number one.

Question: What impact do you hope your service has?

Answer: Volunteering at the Aquarium is all teamwork. Whatever impact my service has had over all these years in all the departments I've worked in, it's definitely not singular.

Volunteer James Lee Uses a Tool to Dig a Hole to Plant a White Atlantic Cedar Sapling
James Lee at Nassawango Creek Preserve.

James Lee

James Lee is a National Aquarium member who lives in Baltimore City and first started volunteering with the Aquarium in 2019. Since that time, he has become a familiar face at the Aquarium's conservation field events. He has volunteered at Fort McHenry, Masonville Cove, Nassawango, Chesterwood Park and Virginia Beach. In 2022 alone, he volunteered at seven conservation events throughout the year. He's an environmentalist and conservationist, and he's driven to volunteer because every contribution makes a difference. "Volunteering is a hands-on experience, a direct connection to the environment," he said. "My doctoral dissertation focused on green manufacturing technologies as a means to minimize pollution output by factories. I've always been an outdoor person, so it goes hand in hand that my work mirrored my personal pursuits."

Question: Are there any particular moments as an Aquarium volunteer that stand out in your memory?

Answer: There are always random objects picked up at field day or cleanup events—especially the creepy toy doll body parts. It's always gratifying to work hard cleaning or planting and then see the piles of debris collected or the rows of trees and grass planted that are the result of the sweat you've poured out. Also, the snacks and food after all the hard work is always a win!

Question: What impact do you hope your service has?

Answer: The biggest impact is to make any difference, regardless of how small, toward conservation of our environment. The second is to help encourage the people in my community—whether it be family, friends or neighbors—to volunteer, too, and participate in the conservation of the neighborhoods we live in and the Earth itself. The third is to bring awareness that volunteers are always welcome and needed, and those opportunities are here for the taking.

Wearing a Hat and Sunglasses, Volunteer Marcia Lyon Gathers With Staff and Volunteers During an Event
Marcia Lyon at Masonville Cove.

Marcia Lyon

Annapolis resident and ACT volunteer Marcia Lyon first joined the Aquarium in 2011 as a volunteer with the Jellies Invasion husbandry team. She went on to volunteer with Animal Rescue for five years and was a staff member in Guest Engagement until the start of the pandemic in 2020. She's had a lifelong love of nature and the ocean—and she has a particular fondness for jellies and sea turtles. "I spent my summers growing up at the Delaware beaches, beachcombing, collecting and labeling the many, many specimens that I found," Marcia said. "Those summers led me to study at the Marine Science Consortium at Lewes, Delaware, and Wallops Island, Virginia, graduating with a degree in biology and minor in marine sciences."

Question: What's your motivation for volunteering with the Aquarium?

Answer: For me, it's about keeping the connection to the natural world that I developed so long ago, and helping others make that important, positive connection in hopes that they can also see the beauty in nature and become stewards of the environment. Working with the Aquarium team is always a pleasure. They're motivating and, let's face it, fun to be around!

Question: What impact do you hope your service has?

Answer: I hope I can help the Aquarium's Conservation team make a difference in the community and the world at large. I have seen firsthand the team's dedication and knowledge, their ability to reach people, and the positive effect that their style has on people. Even after 12 years of volunteering with the Conservation team and eight years of working at the Aquarium, I am still always learning more about conservation and developing new, positive ways to encourage the public to enjoy nature and to become involved with environmental stewardship. I am always in awe of the positive impact that the Conservation team achieves at field events, educating people and garnering support for the mission of the National Aquarium.

Volunteer Barry Menne (Left) and Another Volunteer Kneel Together Planting Grasses on a Sand Dune
Barry Menne (left) at Virginia Beach.

Barry Menne

Barry Menne and his wife, Mary, of Sykesville have been volunteering with ACT for about 13 years. Mary was a volunteer exhibit guide at the Aquarium when she saw the opportunity with ACT. Barry started volunteering after he retired. Barry and Mary both love nature and the outdoors, and they aren't afraid of hard work and exercise.

Question: Do you have a favorite Aquarium conservation field event?

Answer: The dune restoration work in Virginia Beach is our favorite. It's some of the hardest days of physical labor that I remember. Hauling shrubs up the dunes, digging holes—and endless grasses to plant. Many times, we needed to stick around for extra hours just to get the work done. It is so neat to see a dune system that was successfully restored. Every year we can see the increase in dune size resulting from the work that we did the prior year. Poplar Island, too; we planted huge areas of grasses there. There were some extremely hot and difficult days, but it was so neat to see the island grow using harbor dredge material. It's such a win-win project. We also got a really interesting tour of the island, which just wouldn't have happened without our involvement in ACT.

Question: What's your motivation for volunteering with the Aquarium?

Answer: We all like to feel needed in what we do—and with ACT, we often feel needed. The work is hard and thus gratifying. There have been times that we've been hindered by weather and had to finish up a project, even after all the community volunteers left for the day. But what a sense of accomplishment. We enjoy being exhausted at the end of a hard day. The Conservation staff and other ACT volunteers are very passionate about their work, and very friendly. We enjoy their company immensely.

Question: What impact do you hope your service has?

Answer: Mary and I hope that our work has some lasting positive impact. It is gratifying to have the opportunity to give something back to nature. The environmental challenges are so great. But working with the passionate ACT volunteers, the Aquarium staff, the many community members, and the young folks who volunteer gives us some increased hope for the future!

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