Shannon Schiesser of Madison learned long ago that she doesn't have to grow up after all.
Sure, she has responsibilities and bills like any adult-not to mention two daughters in college-and she works a day job as an accounting manager in Westbrook to meet those financial demands. But Shannon has made a veritable second career out of wildlife education and volunteering in various capacities.
She says, "I've always been a nature girl. When I was younger, I used to play out in the woods. I would turn over logs and sticks, wade in creeks, and catch crayfish, frogs, and the occasional snake."
Then she got older, she recalls, and as she watched her businessman father, who worked for IBM, walk out the door with his suit and briefcase day after day, she figured being an adult meant abandoning the woods and its creatures within.
"I thought, 'Okay, well, you grow up and you can't do those things anymore,' so I went into business and got an accounting degree from Bryant College and went into accounting."
Then her three daughters were born, and, through them, she rediscovered her passion for the outdoors and the creatures there.
"I wanted to take my kids to do all these fun things," Shannon recalls. "I used to live in Fairfield, and there was a Connecticut Audubon center there. They were tagging and banding birds when we went once, and they would have little concerts and activities there.
"Then my kids got to be teenagers and they wanted to go off with their friends. There were things I had always wanted to do-one was to see the salamander migration. I'd read about it, and I used to catch spotted salamanders in the woods in Pisgah, North Carolina, where I used to vacation when I was younger. I just loved them. They have the most adorable little faces."
Although Shannon's daughters no longer served as her fellow outdoor adventurers quite as often, a chain of serendipitous events had begun.
"I ended up by accident coming across someone who is part of a 15-year study with the Connecticut Science Center to monitor the frogs and salamander crossings in the spring," she says. "So I was like, 'Oooh, I'm going to go do that!'"
That's how Shannon started volunteering, which she's been doing in earnest for several years now. She serves on two boards: those of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society, a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, and Friends of Hammonasset (FOH), of which she is the photography chair. Through FOH, she is a docent at Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset. She gives environmental education talks and tours and helps lead large group activities open to the public, such as clearing invasive plants with as many as 150 people.
Shannon also helps at Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, and as a first responder for Mystic Aquarium.
She says, "Trainers come out to different locations and train volunteers for several hours to qualify them to be first responders. There's going to be a session in May at Meigs Point Nature Center. They'll contact you if there's a stranding in your area, if someone calls and reports a seal on the beach, and things like that. You're there to educate the public, to keep people, dogs, and animals away. A first responder is there usually until Mystic Aquarium staff can get there."
A few years ago, Shannon was called to the scene when a seal had made it right up to the roadside at Hammonasset.
"It went comatose on us, played dead, so we were on the phone with Mystic Aquarium for quite a while. We had to roll the seal into a crate, and as we're walking it back to the water, the staff was like, 'Are you sure he's playing?' He looked dead! But at one point I saw him open his eyes and glance side to side like, 'Okay, they're still here' and close his eyes again."
Her involvement as a docent at Meigs Point is an opportunity she says is available to anyone.
"They hold trainings several times a year for anyone who has any interest," she says. "You can just greet people, or you can actually help take care of the center itself, help take care of the animals, or you can go out and be one of the educators. It's very fulfilling."
She says, "I've met the greatest group of people who share a similar passion for the natural world, whether specifically animals or protecting the environment, protecting Hammonasset, and I just love it all."
Shannon fervently believes nothing compares to seeing animals in their natural habitat, and says free opportunities in the area to do so are plentiful.
"Meigs Point has great programs in the summertime. They do a seining at noon every day during the summer. Anyone can go. They've caught sea horses, little native fish, and crabs in the nets."
For those who want a more immersive experience, she says, "If you love the environment, there are so many opportunities to volunteer. You'll find that you meet the most amazing people and get all these great opportunities you normally wouldn't. I've banded osprey from their nest. I've gotten to tag horseshoe crabs. Through my Mystic Aquarium involvement, I got to go into a tank with a beluga whale and touch it."
Along with new friends and an outlet for her passion, volunteering with area nature centers has provided Shannon with an endless sense of wonder.
"It's wonderful-you realize you don't really have to grow up. If you loved something as a child, there's nothing wrong with loving it as an adult. Sometimes it's even more important when you're an adult so you can pass that love on to people who don't have the opportunity.
"I want everyone to care about the environment. Keep getting outside and enjoying what's out there. I think because people aren't out in the natural world as much these days, they just don't understand it as well. If you're not thinking about something, you're not going to be as thoughtful about protecting it."
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