Elk Grove mother and daughter volunteer weekly at Shedd Aquarium to educate visitors

Elk Grove mother and daughter volunteer weekly at Shedd Aquarium to educate visitors

  • Heather, left, and Isabella Maldonado help explain what young visitors are finding in the Sea Star Touch habitat exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium, where they volunteer every Monday afternoon.

    Heather, left, and Isabella Maldonado help explain what young visitors are finding in the Sea Star Touch habitat exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium, where they volunteer every Monday afternoon. Courtesy of Heather Maldonado

 
Posted10/15/2019 6:00 AM

Isabella Maldonado of Elk Grove Village may only be in seventh grade, but this much she knows: When she grows up, she wants to be a marine biologist.

Don't bet against it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For the last year, she and her mother, Heather, have volunteered once a week at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

Isabella and Heather Maldonado of Elk Grove Village volunteer as exhibit interpreters every Monday afternoon at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
Isabella and Heather Maldonado of Elk Grove Village volunteer as exhibit interpreters every Monday afternoon at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. - Courtesy of Heather Maldonado

"I really love the ocean, and I have a passion to teach people to take care of it," says Isabella.

She credits her appreciation of the ocean and aquatic life to her annual trip visiting with her father's family in Puerto Rico. Consequently, during a visit to the aquarium, when she learned they accepted volunteers as young as 12, she resolved to apply.

After an interview and onboarding process, Isabella and her mother were accepted as exhibit interpreters, whose mission is to spark compassion and curiosity for aquatic animals by sharing relevant stories and facts.

They are part of the Shedd's 800 volunteers and 170 in Guest Engagement, says Bridget Thornton, manager of volunteer and intern services.

Isabella and Heather Maldonado of Elk Grove Village posed recently behind the Shedd's Sea Star Touch habitat exhibit.
Isabella and Heather Maldonado of Elk Grove Village posed recently behind the Shedd's Sea Star Touch habitat exhibit. - Courtesy of Heather Maldonado
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"Volunteers are partners in supporting Shedd's mission," Thornton says. "They allow us to reach more guests and support staff, both at the aquarium and out in the community. 

"They can be found in nearly every area of the aquarium," she adds, "so their impact is felt throughout the building."

In fact, as volunteers, Isabella and her mother can wander through the aquarium and talk to guests in any exhibit. During their four-hour shift on Monday afternoons, they generally move to a new exhibit every half-hour.

For Isabella, her favorite is the Underwater Beauty special exhibit, which emphasizes the rich diversity and color of the coral reef marine life. Think jellyfish, skeleton shrimp and ribbon eels, for starters.

Isabella is a great ambassador for Shedd volunteers, where they accept applicants as young as 12.
Isabella is a great ambassador for Shedd volunteers, where they accept applicants as young as 12. - Courtesy of Heather Maldonado
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I encourage young children to draw their favorite fish," Isabella says, "with lots of shimmer, colors and patterns."

Her mother says she enjoys explaining parts of a dolphin to guests either going into or coming out of the dolphin show. She has a cart with a stuffed dolphin, which she uses to demonstrate everything from how they breathe to how they communicate.

Heather Maldonado home-schools Isabella, and that's how she can get away every Monday afternoon. But she strongly believes this volunteer commitment carries more value than learning about the different aquatic species and their environments.

"It's been a great experiential learning experience," she says. "It's helping build her confidence and public speaking, while building her critical thinking, problem solving and responsibility."

As an added benefit, Maldonado is enjoying the experience just as much as her daughter, she says.

"Volunteering at the Shedd has provided an opportunity to continue learning," she says. "And I love sharing this experience with my daughter and spending time with her."

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