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Student and Volunteer Programs: 2020 Impact Report

Group photograph of DLC volunteers and staff

DLC volunteers and staff. NOTE: This photo was taken pre-pandemic and shows volunteers without masks.

The DLC has been fortunate to have a growing number of students and volunteers who are part of our working family. They not only help to care for our colony, but also contribute significantly toward many facets of the DLC’s work and impact.

For this department, 2020 began as we begin each new year, by celebrating our volunteers for their service to the center. Staff and volunteers gathered for a night of refreshments,  prizes, awards, and recognition of the 11,000 hours that volunteers from all departments contributed in 2019.

In the early months of 2020, many good things were in progress: We had welcomed a former DLC camper back to the center to take part in a junior husbandry internship; had begun to onboard new animal care volunteers; had welcomed DLC Registrar and Staff Photographer David Haring, who retired after 35+ years at the center, to our volunteer corps; and were deep into planning for summer internships, for which we had received a record number of applicants. We did not know the challenges that would soon face us and the world in the year ahead.

The pandemic pivot

In mid-March, as the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in NC, we made the difficult decision to shut down the student and volunteer program indefinitely, with the goal of limiting personnel on site and keeping our staff, animals, and volunteer corps healthy. Our spring interns from the Davidson County Community College Zoo and Aquarium Science Program ended their internships early and we paused training for our newest Technician Assistants. Spring service events with student, community, and corporate groups were called off. As the university began to cancel in-person student activities for the summer, we followed suit and cancelled our summer internship program. In an effort to stay connected, we moved our volunteer community to the virtual realm, establishing a group messaging platform and settling into regular “Zoom”boomafoo chat sessions. There we shared lemur photos, virtual educational opportunities, and much needed distractions, as well as updates from the center and from our personal lives.

The program hiatus allowed us time to evaluate and improve volunteer onboarding and training materials; find and pursue connections with the DLC’s “alumni” (former interns, volunteers, and students); adapt some of our volunteer tasks for remote accessibility; and pause and consider new initiatives going forward.

In search of balance

Even prior to the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., a priority for us in 2020 was to evaluate our existing student and volunteer opportunities and explore ways to recruit and engage a more racially diverse audience of students and community members. As a starting point, we formed an interdepartmental DLC diversity task force to identify existing barriers to participation in our current programs, determine ways to broaden our reach in the Triangle area, and to discuss a variety of ways to adapt our approaches in order to enlist participation reflecting a true representation of the wider community.  While some of these steps are difficult during the pandemic, our goal is to build connections now with faculty, staff, and students both within and outside of Duke, as well as local community organizations. Staff have since participated in virtual presentations and career discussions at North Carolina Central University, NC Agricultural & Technical State University, East Carolina University, and North Carolina State University. Several members of the DLC management team are now acting as mentors to STEM undergraduate students with low-income backgrounds. We are also pursuing grants and searching for other funding sources so that we can begin to offer stipends for future internship positions and offset costs associated with transportation to the center. Discussions continue as we look to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion practices center-wide.

Easing into a new routine

Through careful planning and consultation with Duke Administration, we were able to reopen to volunteers in early July. A small group of our most experienced Technician Assistants returned first to support the husbandry staff, and more followed throughout the summer. Others tended to the center’s vegetable garden, harvested browse for the animals, and photographed the lemurs for digital communications. They did so all while following new COVID protocols to keep the animals and people at the center healthy. Volunteers picked up extra shifts, some working 4-5 days in a row to support the animal care team. Education volunteers cross-trained to assist with lemur diet preparation and others took on remote volunteer projects. These included data entry of veterinary records, transcription of fossil lab records, coding of video recorded aye-aye behavior, packing of Stay Away 5K and fall gala swag bags, and sewing masks for the animal care team. The volunteer corps also sent along snacks and encouraging words to the on-site team to keep spirits up. Despite the program hiatus and the reduced volunteer presence on grounds, the volunteers contributed an incredible 6,500 volunteer hours in 2020; 1,500 of these hours were served at home. Many volunteers are eager to return to service once they are vaccinated and we also look forward to the time when we can onboard new folks into the DLC volunteer family.

Though we were forced to cancel our summer 2020 internship program, we were able to host three interns in Fall 2020. Three recent graduates joined our fossil collection, husbandry, and communications departments for 10 weeks working remotely, in-person, or both. They contributed significantly to the development of the Me and You and Zoboomafoo feature presentation for the fall gala, assisted with the digitization of fossil specimens, and learned the ins and outs of caring for a colony of 200 lemurs across 14 species. We are also currently hosting a student from the DCCC Zoo and Aquarium Science Program. Due to ongoing uncertainty with COVID-19, we cancelled the internship program for summer 2021, but are looking eagerly toward summer 2022, when we hope to host a large group of interns again!

Testimonies from the DLC Volunteer Corps

Despite the challenges of the year, our volunteers demonstrated resilience, selflessness, and commitment to the DLC community and to our mission. Here are some of their stories.

Prior to the pandemic, Duke employee and DLC volunteer Alexis Sharp could be found leading tours around the center– talking with guests about lemur natural history, their conservation status, and the DLC’s role in Durham and in Madagascar. When the center closed to the public, Alexis volunteered to help both remotely and in-person, wherever she was needed. She said “being able to continue to volunteer at the DLC throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the world to me – allowing me to give my time to the animals, incredibly hard-working staff, and organization that has brought me so much joy over the years.  It also has given me a sense of normalcy while adjusting to the work, school, and life changes I’ve experienced alongside my family over the year (I’m not sure what else I’d wake up for at 5:30 am on Mondays besides diet prep!).  I am proud to help the DLC continue its missions of research, conservation, and education, despite any challenges we may face!”

Duke undergraduate student Nick Kaney returned to the Durham area at the beginning of Duke’s fall 2020 semester, knowing the college experience would be very different for him this year. Mostly remote classes, virtual student activities, and COVID precautions meant that his only opportunity to get off campus was to come to the DLC for his weekly Technician Assistant shift. He was excited to have an outlet to serve in the community, when so many of his other university experiences were on pause. On that, he said “luckily, every Saturday I was able to escape campus and head on over to the Lemur Center. I’m thankful for the hard work of the DLC and its staff for staying open to volunteers, providing me with the perfect getaway from the stresses of this time.”

Former Primate Technician Steve Coombs retired from the DLC in March 2018 and weeks later had returned as a volunteer Technician Assistant. Steve’s expertise and knowledge of the colony continue to be assets to the center, and he was one of the first volunteers to reach out when the volunteer program shut down due to COVID-19. “When we did not know how widespread the infections would be at the start of the pandemic, I contacted Greg [Dye, Executive Director of the DLC] to offer my services in case too many staff were out sick,” says Steve. “Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary; but I still worried about staff burnout from the tough schedule with no help from volunteers. I was relieved when the volunteers were able to return to help. I’m sure working those hours was also a benefit to me to be able to get out of the house and be useful.”

NCSU student Hannah Wall has aspirations of being a zookeeper and became a Technician Assistant in October of 2018. Hannah says, “I have loved it ever since. I actually toured the DLC many years ago with my grandma and it is crazy to think that years later, I get to volunteer here!…I always look forward to spending time at the DLC and meeting new volunteers or catching up with old ones. It’s also been fun getting to know the technicians and researchers. No matter the age difference or past experiences, I love that so many incredible people can gather to support lemur conservation.”

Duke Postdoctoral Associate Dr. Marco Esters started volunteering at the DLC in late 2019, shortly before the volunteer program closure. “Working at the DLC has taught me a lot about lemur behavior that I would not have had the opportunity to observe otherwise, from watching sifaka interact to hearing the ruffed lemurs’ deafening screams, all while trying not to get trapped in the enclosure by crowned lemurs. I also get to meet a lot of amazing people who share my passion for working with animals. Not to mention that it is a great workout – something that I, who sit in front of a computer all day at work, can always use. While the coronavirus brought all this to a screeching halt for some time, I am happy that I got to return to the DLC recently. Not only does it give me some much-needed animal time, but I am also able to support our staff and our lemurs through this unusual period.”

Michelle Allen began volunteering at the DLC back when she was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Five years have passed and she still spends every Saturday morning as a Technician Assistant, even during a pandemic. She shares that “the Lemur Center is somewhere I can do some of my best thinking. As I like to tell people – hosing poop can be quite meditative! I feel inspired each week by the hard work of the DLC staff and for the opportunity to help them care for such critically important and endangered animals. On one such Saturday morning, as I was hosing B-wing with varecia bouncing around me, I decided to apply to graduate school to pursue a career in public service. I wanted to spend my career how I spent my Saturday shifts – feeling like I was making an impact while doing something I loved.”

Volunteers Alexis and Steve photographed next to an aye-aye, and volunteer Geoff shown hosing one of the animal housing areas

Long-time DLC volunteers Alexis Sharp, Steve Coombs, and Geoff Yuen. NOTE: These photos of Alexis and Steve were taken pre-pandemic and show volunteers around animals without masks.