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Program provides experience that changes lives

By Staff | Sep 4, 2009

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum fourth-grade field trip program was initiated in 1998 with the cooperation of the Lee County Public School System, individual contributions and revenue generated by the museum’s annual fund-raiser.
Approximately 2,400 students are hosted annually, with more than 20,000 students visiting since the inception of the program.
When a class visits the museum, the students begin the experience by watching an animated PowerPoint presentation explaining what a mollusk is. They also learn how mollusks grow, move and reproduce, what they eat and where they live.
Next, they participate in hands-on local shell activities. The students feel the inside of the shell to capture the feeling of what it would be like to live inside this space. Touching the operculum helps them understand how this trap door protects shells from predators. Egg casings and baby shells are viewed through a magnifying glass. Shell-matching games reinforce the lesson.
Then it is on to the Great Hall of Shells. One of the museum’s docents interprets and highlights exhibits that are of special interest to children. A trip to the salt water tank allows the children to see the mollusks “up close and personal.”
“For some children, it’s the first time they realize that there is an animal inside the shell, an animal that actually makes the shell,” said Diane Orvis Thomas, the museum’s public program specialist. “They also learn how to handle and protect live shells found on the beach.”
Shrinking school budgets and high transportation costs have made it difficult for classroom teachers to secure the funding necessary for field trips. The public can help.
A donation of $250 will make it possible for a class to experience a Shell Museum Field Trip.
Donors are given the option of joining their adopted class the day of their Museum visit. As the children complete their mollusk experience, they stand on the front steps of the museum and a class picture is taken. The picture and a personal thank you note generated by the class are forwarded to the donor.
Last year, the museum was able to stretch donated funds by partnering with J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Like the Shell Museum, “Ding” Darling has designated funding for fourth-grade class visits.
Partnering made it possible for twice as many lives to be impacted. Two classes share the bus ride to Sanibel. One class visits “Ding” Darling in the morning and the other spends time at the Shell Museum. After lunch, the classes trade places. Not only do more children have the opportunity to participate, but the classes are able to enjoy two very different experiences.
Jean and Richard Rompala began visiting Sanibel in the 1970s as vacationers. When retirement was imminent they looked all over Florida, determined to find the perfect retirement location.
“It was an easy decision,” Jean Rompala said. “Sanibel is so unique, nowhere else compared, especially when you consider that I love shells and my husband is an avid golfer.”
Two years ago, she became a Shell Museum volunteer, initially serving as a docent in the Great Hall of Shells, guiding visitors through their Museum visit. But it was not long before another museum program stole her heart.
“While serving in the Great Hall of Shells, I had an opportunity to observe the Education Docents and the work they were dong with fourth grade students,” Rompala said. “I was impressed. They were so knowledgeable and dedicated. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, the Education Docents or the children.”
She attended the specially designed Education Docent training program and the rest is history. Rompala can hardly wait to return from their summer residence on Cape Cod.
“Working with the children is so rewarding. We meet children who have lived in Lee County all of their lives but have never been to the beach. Their eyes light up when they go to the live tank and discover that living animals are responsible for making the shells,” she said. “The staff is so supportive and every day I learn something new, either from other docents or by researching the answers to questions students ask.”
Programs like “Adopt-A-Class” can change lives. Children gain insight into the natural world, make decisions about career choices, and become proactive in the quest to preserve the environment.
If you would like to volunteer at the Shell Museum or become an Adopt-A-Class donor, call Diane Orvis Thomas at 395-2233.