“I want to tell you about how the Aquarium changed my life…” In a darkened ballroom along the Seattle waterfront last June, Anja, an 18-year-old high school volunteer stood in the spotlight and told the story of how the Seattle Aquarium changed her life’s path. A room full of donors absorbed every word, inspired by the young ocean conservationist’s story.
Nearly two decades ago, the Seattle Aquarium made a commitment to involving youth in its mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment. High school students were invited to volunteer their time as teen naturalists, educating Aquarium visitors about our collection and providing customer service. The program focused on workplace skills and learning “fish facts,” which youth volunteers could relay to the public.
In 2010, we realized we had the opportunity for our youth to be more than just walking signs throughout the Aquarium. We could, if we chose, inspire the next generation of Ocean Advocates. Inspired by The Ocean Project research findings that youth were increasingly viewed as “opinion-makers” in their households and youth’s strong interest in environmental issues, we embarked on a plan to help teens create environmental change in the community.
Perhaps most impressive is our youths’ outreach efforts. Partnering with The Ocean Project, Deb Kerr and youth liaisons from YouthMuse, our teen volunteers planned and implemented the Puget Sound: We Love You campaign, which aims to inspire others to take action to protect Puget Sound. This youth-run effort has an impressive social media following and has implemented wonderful events like local beach cleanups and “An Hour for the Ocean” on World Ocean Day.
In addition to reaching people in the community and via social media, youth volunteers have continued their work inspiring visitors at the Aquarium, logging more than 23,500 hours of interpretation during 2012. They’ve also been impressive fundraisers, gathering $20,000 in support of Aquarium programs through a youth-run face-painting booth.
As Anja said so eloquently that night back in June, “The Aquarium has taught me that, to save the world, I need to save the oceans.” We’ve provided unique opportunities for youth to view themselves as conservation leaders, and it has paid off. Youth are change-makers in waiting, and zoos, aquariums and museums are positioned to be both young people’s inspiration and their platform. When we consciously change how we engage youth in our missions, we provide an opportunity for our audience to help us fulfill our mission.