Volunteers at Inland Seas


By Kathleen Stocking
Sun contributor

There are approximately 250 volunteers helping out at the Inland Seas Education Association. “We’d be unable to function without all the amazingly talented and amazingly dedicated volunteers,” says executive director Fred Sitkins. There are doctors, lawyers, teachers, fish biologists, interior decorators, housewives and retirees of all kinds, including retired school administrators, pipe fitters and electronic hospital equipment salesmen.

Why do they do it? Because they can and they think somebody should. Because they want to be part of something larger than just their own personal existence. Because they have some specific skills—like doctoring or wood-working—and know they’re needed. Because they want to give back to a country that has given them so much. Because they feel that we’re all in this together. Because it’s just what people do. It’s why carpenters from Leelanau County loaded up their trucks and drove to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It’s why people at the Chick-fil-A off Highway 40 in Texas, or the Dunkin’ Donuts Drive-through in Detroit, or the McDonalds in Fargo, N.D. pay for the person behind them or go into Target at Christmastime and anonymously pay off someone’s lay-a-way for toys for their kids. Local volunteers have been the reason Michael Moore was able to start the 10-year-old film festival in Traverse City—and keep it going. Volunteers have allowed tiny St. Mary’s School in Lake Leelanau to educate kids for years, sometimes with not much more than chicken dinners, quilt raffles and prayer. It’s the American thing to do and we’ve been doing it spontaneously and continuously since the barn-raisings of previous centuries.

Inland Seas is a 25-year-old organization that started back in 1989 as a way to inspire the stewardship of the Great Lakes by taking school children out on a 19th century schooner and teaching them about fish and water quality. Founder Tom Kelly, a University of Michigan trained fish biologist who was inspired by Pete Seeger’s similar program on the Clearwater on the Hudson, decided to do something like it on the Great Lakes.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAInitially the Schoolship program operated with borrowed ships, but eventually funds were raised to build a 19th century schooner, the Inland Seas. From the start, the program was run with volunteers. Dr. Bill Weiss, a 25-year veteran of the program with a PhD in environmental engineering from Texas A&M (Agricultural and Mechanical) University, said, “Tom called up some of his science buddies and asked if we’d like to teach kids about plankton and water quality,” and, in the case of Weiss and a few others, they’ve been doing it ever since.

Sander Kushner, a family doctor in Suttons Bay for many years after semi-retiring from being chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Wayne State University, comes in one day in April to get the first aid kits in shape. Kushner was recruited by Tom Kelly to be the Inland Seas’ medical advisor. Kushner, like many of the volunteers, also volunteers for other organizations. He goes to Guatemala every year with his daughter, also a family practice doctor, and together they serve in remote villages and orphanages where people seldom see doctors.

Kushner is the son of a Russian immigrant who came to America when he was 12 to escape the ravages of the Second World War. Kushner says his father walked from Odessa on the Black Sea, north to Leningrad, a journey of more than 1,500 miles, got on a boat and came to Ellis Island. “He couldn’t speak a word of English,” Kushner says. “No education.” Kushner says his father became an upholsterer in Detroit and learned English by reading Zane Gray novels.

Asked why he volunteers, Kushner says, “I was lucky enough in my life to acquire skills and I can share my skills. I can help. It makes me feel good.” He pauses. “Of course going out on the schooner is a wonderful experience. I’ve always love sailing. It’s old-fashioned. It relates to the past.”

Jan Hale, a retired math teacher from Traverse City Public Schools, famously the husband of long-time Mayor, Carol Hale, who jokingly refers to himself as Traverse City’s “First Gentleman,” has been volunteering at the Inland Seas Education Association since 1991 when they were still renting ships to host school groups. Hale [no relation to Senior Captain, Ben Hale] got his captain’s license in 1999 and has volunteered at Inland Seas ever since. He doesn’t teach on the boat, but serves as a crewmember and captain.

InlandSeas-popkeDonna Popke, an interior decorator with a degree in speech pathology, has been an Inland Seas regular since inception because, she says, “I had a great fourth grade teacher who taught me to love science.” She came to Leelanau County “to visit a friend” in 1975 and never left. She loves mucking around in streams and out on the lake. She says, “Every water quality sample is a marvel and a wonder.”

Jerry and Carol Inman of Kingsley are a retired school superintendent and elementary school teacher, respectively, who love kids and love teaching. Carol says that seeing the kids really engage is a thrill for her, every time. Jerry says, “I like to tell the students, ‘Anyone can come and take a picture of the bay. Everyone does it. But to protect the bay, you have to understand it from the surface down.’” Jerry says he likes the history of schooners. “Schooners on the Great Lakes helped rebuild Chicago after the fire of 1872. They carried all that lumber down the lake.”

Sally Somsel who works in the oil and gas industry is on the board and has been a volunteer instructor and crew member since 1991. She says she saw an ad in the paper and joined up even though “I’d only been on a sailboat once.” She grew up downstate near Grand Rapids in an area where there were fossils and an Indian chipping station for making arrowheads. “I always loved science. I wanted to be a paleontologist.”

Scott Reitz, a retired fisheries biologist and forestry service worker, comes every year from Warren, Pa. Reached by phone in Pennsylvania, he says he’s baby-sitting for his eight-month-old granddaughter, Chloe. He and his wife have four nearby children and eight grandchildren and they take turns, two days a week each, baby-sitting for one of their daughter’s children. Reitz first came to Inland Seas with a Pennsylvania Girl Scout Troop and has returned almost every year for 15 years, driving the 11 hours north, to volunteer for a two-week stretch.

Len Klein is another longtime volunteer, lead instructor and crewmember. He taught math at Oakland Community College until he retired up north and now teaches probability and statistics at Northwestern Michigan College. “Working with the environment has always been a passion,” Klein says. “You see the kids, some of them for the first time, get excited about learning. You see them just light up and you don’t forget that.”

InlandSeas-messerJack Messer and Bob Hagerman get off the boat together. Messer is a retired Michigan State Police officer and former emergency services coordinator, “I like the chance to pay back, pay it forward.” Bob Hagerman is a retired organic chemist from Dow in Midland. He’s a lead instructor and crewmember. “I’d never sailed before,” he says, and so he especially enjoys the acceptance by the crew. “I’m 100 percent supportive of the Inland Seas Mission,” Hagerman says, “Teaching stewardship of the Great Lakes, hands-on science, team work. It’s great.”

Kaz McCue teaches art at the Leelanau School. He has a degree from Parsons School of Design in New York City. “I fell in love with Leelanau County,” he says. “I love the isolation, the wild beauty, the lakes and the dunes.” He began volunteering at Inland Seas only recently but already loves going out on the ship. “I’m impressed by how put-together the program is.”

Leo and Pat Paveglio (pronounced Pa-vel-i-o) started volunteering in 2010 after Leo saw a public service announcement at the YMCA. Both are retired teachers and, in one of those uncanny life coincidences, Leo is the former math teacher of Senior Captain Ben Hale from when both were living in Lapeer. The work “combines sailing, education, science, kids and hands-on learning,” Leo says, “all of it enjoyable.” They love to travel and have been to the Grand Canyon, the Galapagos and Machu Pichu in Peru. Pat says, “Leo finds these great things to do and I say, ‘Oh that sounds like fun.’” This fall they’re going to Anarctica as part of the well-known travel society, Road Scholars.

Frank Simkins began volunteering at Inland Seas after he retired from selling hospital equipment in 2012. “I love fish, I love fishing.” The son of a Wayne County sheriff, he grew up in the Detroit area and came north in the 1980s to sell healthcare electronics for Philips. He crews on the Inland Seas in the summer and comes in three or four hours a week in the winter and cleans all the aquariums in the education center. “I clean one aquarium a week,” he says, “so by the end of the month, they’re all clean.” He describes himself as an amateur naturalist. He says he has a blog about fish and is currently writing about the bowfin.

Gloria Veltman, a retired police officer and bookseller, began volunteering more than a decade ago and hasn’t stopped. She was born in Mexico where her father was in the Foreign Service and has lived all over the United States. She volunteers because “you hope to trigger an interest. You hope to inspire a kid.” Volunteering is about “giving back to the community, but it’s also a pursuing of your own interests.” She loves the sailing and began sailing with her father when she was a child.

InlandSeas-henrys(15)Jim Henry is the prototypical Renaissance Man. A pipe fitter from Adrian, he is a voracious reader who has restored a 1938 Indian motorcycle, the kind of motorcycle made famous in the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” with Anthony Hopkins, and he’s shown it on the Course de Elegance in California. He and his wife, Cheryl, have just purchased a 1930s vintage cottage on Northport Bay. The cottage, like a movie set, is an astonishingly perfect period piece in pristine condition. In one corner of the bayside porch is an ancient 12-foot-long pair of skis carved by a Norwegian farmer in Northport a century ago and recently rescued from a destiny as firewood. Jim and Cheryl both love old things and Jim says his appreciation of the schooner is part of that. “It’s all done with wind and water and human hands,” he says. “I like that.”

Ken Cerny is an Inland Seas volunteer extraordinaire. Not only does he go out on the ship and teach water chemistry, he helps with the July Nautical Flea Market and Classical Boat Show. He was the coordinator of the volunteers between 2005 and 2008, doing the scheduling and making reminder calls for as many as a hundred volunteers a week.

“Every nonprofit exists because of the volunteers and if you’re going to do this right,” Cerny says, “you’re going to spend 30 hours a week on the phone.” He says when he was handling volunteers he took a photo of each one and knew them by name. “If you want to retain your volunteers,” he says, “You need to interact with them. You need to recognize them. You need to thank them.” Cerny’s wife, Marilyn, is on the board of the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, both are active in their church and Cerny is a current member and past president of the Suttons Bay Rotary. He and his wife have been fulltime volunteers since retiring in 2000.

“You have an incredibly talented pool of volunteers up here,” Cerny says, adding that Leelanau County is the second wealthiest county in the state, after Oakland County. “You have doctors, CEOs, teachers. One of the guys building a boat downstairs a few weeks ago was a neurosurgeon.” The important thing about recruiting volunteers, he says, which is something Inland Seas does exceptionally well, is “You make people feel that what they’re doing has value, that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.” He smiles. “And you keep them by interacting with them.”

“I’m so grateful for our volunteers,” Sitkins says. ”Inland Seas wouldn’t exist without them.” As an expression of that gratitude Sitkins arranged a special sailing trip recently for interested volunteers. The red-sailed Inland Seas was featured in the Cherry Festival for the first time this summer. It will also visit Northport on August 12, Leland on August 13, and will be in the Frankfort Harbor from August 13 until August 17. Visitors are welcome.

Kathleen Stocking is author of the acclaimed book, Letters from the Leelanau (University of Michigan Press, 1990). She is currently working on her next book, The Long Arc of the Universe.