Passing down knowledge: Guides at local museums teach guests and stay busy in retirement

By Deborah Storey | Living 50 Plus

Stay active. Make new friends. Inspire young people. Stay sharp. For seniors and retirees, these are great reasons to volunteer.

Another is that volunteering in the community just makes people feel good about themselves.

Lacy Slaten, volunteer coordinator at the Cook Museum of Natural Science in Decatur, said the museum has roughly 100 active volunteers right now and has had as many as 300 through the years.

They explain exhibits in the galleries and assist with animal care, education, programs and administrative tasks.

“They are crucial to the day-to-day operations of the museum as well as the big picture,” Lacy said.

The majority, she figures, are senior citizens.

“It’s a great place to be connected and involved in the community and to help with kids of all ages learning about science, so especially for the retired community,” she said.

“It’s a great spot to do all of those things locally. Even if it’s not working with the public there are still many opportunities.”

Moulton resident Larry Last retired from 3M in Decatur in 2017 and volunteers at Cook’s — among other places.

“I realized that in retirement I needed some things to do,” Last said.

He loves kids. He and his wife raised and home-schooled 10.

Last heard about the Cook Museum and attended a volunteer recruitment session before it even opened.

“I talked to them and realized that it was something I definitely wanted to do in retirement,” he said.

Last is what’s called a gallery explainer, which means he is on the floor interacting with guests during his shift.

“I get to talk science, basically, and most of the time to kids,” said the 67-year-old. “I enjoy it. I do it one day a week. I work a four-hour shift, typically.”

He likes talking to school groups but interacts with anyone who happens to come through the science museum, from families with young children to retirees.

“Four- and 5-year-olds are going to ask me pretty basic questions,” he said.

For instance, the museum has an exhibit with live juvenile alligators in a tank.

“Sometimes kids will talk about the crocodiles and I’ll go over there and say, ‘Now wait a minute, there’s a difference between crocodiles and alligators,’ and explain the difference to them,” he said.

At the popular snake exhibit, kids usually ask which ones are poisonous.

“I like that question because I always say, ‘There’s no such thing as a poisonous snake.’ And they’ll look at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I say, ‘Snakes are venomous.’ ”

Last, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, tutors chemistry and physics and teaches Sunday school. A former Boy Scout leader, he works with an adventure and leadership program for boys in grades K-12 called Trail Life. He’s also president of the Good Samaritan Food Pantry in Moulton.

Last volunteers at the library, too, and reads to children. When someone else didn’t show up at Easter, “they had a 6-foot-3 Easter bunny,” he said with a laugh.

Obviously, he likes to stay on the go during his retirement years.

“You’ve got to have a plan when you retire. Otherwise you sit in your recliner and you watch TV,” he said. “My wife accuses me of being busier now than when I was working, and it’s probably true.”

Explaining rocket science

Craig Sumner has been volunteering at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville since 2016, even though he is still working at almost age 74.

“I thought I would retire at age 55, when I was a young person,” he joked.

For someone who was interested in the space program as a youth, Sumner’s timing to enter the work field was excellent. He started in a co-op program with NASA in 1969, six months after the first moon landing. He worked on the lunar rover with the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 crews. He has a picture of himself wearing astronaut Jim Lovell’s training suit.

As a volunteer, Sumner loves being able to spend time in the Space & Rocket Center environment and tell stories.

“It’s my playroom in a sense because a lot of the hardware that’s out there, I got to work on,” Sumner said. “I get to share some of those experiences.”

Sumner tells young people “if you can dream about it, you can go do it.”

Terry Carver of Decatur also works as a Space & Rocket Center docent. The center has two types of volunteer docents, he explained, those who worked in the space program and others from the military.

“We’re retired military and generally we do volunteer work with Aviation Challenge,” said the Decatur resident. His wife Lynne has volunteered at the center as well.

“We’re always looking for more military and NASA docents,” said Carver, 71.

During his 26 years in the Air Force, Carver was a crew chief and aircraft technician. One of the first airframes he ever worked on was a C-5A. He knows the difference between the A-12 and SR-71 aircraft, too, so he can talk knowledgeably about the planes on display. When he gives tours these days, he can discuss programs he was involved with in his younger days but couldn’t talk about at the time.

During his service the Carvers were stationed at some great locations, including Germany, Spain and Greece.

“We could drive across five different countries, just about, on a long Sunday drive,” he said. He was assigned to Germany at an amazing time in history — 10 days before the Berlin Wall came down.

Volunteers stay active

Carver retired from the military at age 45, then worked as a college professor for 10 years and spent another 10 years at SAIC.

In addition to volunteering at the Space & Rocket Center, Carver works at Habitat for Humanity and volunteers to usher for ballets, plays and concerts at the Von Braun Center.

Volunteering is a great way to stay active and engaged, said the still-energetic Carver.

“It keeps me going. I get up and go every day. Except when I tore my shoulder last year I don’t sit around in front of the TV,” he said.

Sumner offers another good reason for seniors to volunteer.

“It’s an opportunity for me to give something back,” said Sumner. “I’ve been so blessed in my life and career.

“When you can save a company and taxpayers money by taking these highly passionate engineers and pointing them in the right direction” to help with needs in the community, he said, everyone benefits.

For seniors looking for volunteer opportunities, the Volunteer Center of Morgan County website lists a number of ways to get involved. The center is always looking for people who can help with minor home repairs, grass mowing, building wheelchair ramps, collecting for critical needs and helping to shop for Christmas programs. Even fun events like the Dragon Boat Races at Point Mallard use volunteers.

Other places to check for volunteer opportunities include schools, hospice programs and United Way.