We simply wouldn’t be the organization we are today without our volunteers. Each year, hundreds of community members donate over 100,000 hours to Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre programs. Our volunteers work with sick and injured animals in the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, teach children about the wonders of aquatic life through our on-site and mobile education programs, and help provide a world-class experience for the more 1 million visitors annually who come through our doors.
It’s so much more than Jane Van Roggen ever could have anticipated when Aquarium founding director Dr. Murray A. Newman asked her to start a docent program.
It was the early 1960s, and Van Roggen, who had met Newman at a dinner party, was active in the Junior League of Greater Vancouver. Part of the mandate of the women’s organization was to take on pilot projects for community and charitable groups around town. And so it was through the efforts and ingenuity of a group of dedicated women that the Vancouver Aquarium’s volunteer program was born.
“I think 15 of us signed up to do it,” recalls Van Roggen. “We knew every fish in every exhibit because the Aquarium was very small back then. All we had in the way of a store was a kiosk that sold cigarettes, gum and film.”
Undeterred by their modest surroundings, or their inexperience with marine biology, these women set on a crash course in marine science so they could teach school children touring the Aquarium. “Murray gave us very interesting lectures,” says Van Roggen. “He knew we had to be intelligent if we were going to have children coming.”
While Van Roggen worked as a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital, many women at the time were stay-at-home mothers. Volunteering at the Aquarium gave them a chance to develop new skills and build social networks.
“It opened a whole new world to me,” recalls Lucy MacKay, who began volunteering for the Aquarium in 1971. After moving to Vancouver from Montreal, MacKay signed up as a docent in order to meet new people and fill her days while her kids were at school. She soon discovered a passion for teaching children under the guidance of Dr. Newman and Dr. Sharon Proctor, then the Aquarium’s director of education, who coached the volunteers on working with kids. “They gave us all the feeling that we could do it.”
Betsy Bennett, another early volunteer, credits becoming a docent with igniting a lifelong obsession with marine science. “My late husband Winslow had a wonderful way of explaining it: ‘Betsy had gone to the Aquarium and swallowed the anchor.’”
In actuality, it’s these women became anchors for the Aquarium. In addition to each of them serving as president of the Vancouver Aquarium’s board of directors, their legacies continue on in programs and events that live on today. Van Roggen spearheaded the Aquarium’s first fundraising efforts and pioneered a version of our Aquavan program by loading up her station wagon with salt-water species and touring local schools. MacKay, meanwhile, began our signature Night At The Aquarium gala fundraiser, initially called Salmonchanted Evening, which is our premier fundraiser of the year. And Bennett’s generous financial support and commitment to education is reflected in our brand new Betsy and Winslow Bennett Learning Lab, which is equipped with cutting edge technology to allow children from across Canada and the world to participate in the Vancouver Aquarium’s educational programs.
With its global reach and expanded facilities and programs, today’s Aquarium bears little resemblance to its humble beginnings, but the contributions of local community members remains at the heart of our conservation, research and education programs. And that has Van Roggen, MacKay and Bennett excited about what the next 60 years will hold for their beloved Aquarium. “You never know what the future’s going to hold,” says MacKay. “You really don’t.”
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is celebrating 60 years of ocean conservation with a series of stories that highlight its impact on the world around us. Better known for its conservation efforts, such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and Ocean Wise, Vancouver Aquarium also operates Canada’s only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and has connected 42 million visitors to aquatic life since opening its doors in 1956. Join us as we explore six decades of milestones and look ahead to what’s needed to protect our world’s oceans.