When Mikes (Michal) Patterson completed her 3,000th volunteer hour at Sidney’s Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, balloons did not drop down from the ceiling to mark the momentous occasion.
In fact, Patterson cannot recall what she was doing when she crossed that threshold in mid-December.
“Probably trying to climb the ladders to feed the fish,” she said, with a chuckle. “It’s not a job for most people, especially my age, but I love it — love it dearly.”
Getting on and off the ladders accessing various tanks in the centre – with its 35 aquarium habitats home to more than 160 marine species and 3,500 animals – can be a bit of a squeeze for anyone.
But Patterson, who is preparing to celebrate her 80th birthday in 2021, sparkles with enthusiasm as her fingers dribble feed into one of the more accessible tanks, all while promising its occupants a delicious meal of plankton. “I love talking to the fish,” she said. “I always talk to them as I feed them.”
While feeding the fish (and other marine life) at the centre is Patterson’s main volunteer duty these days, her historical portfolio of volunteer roles has reached far beyond. In fact, Patterson was already on the books as a volunteer even before the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea officially opened its doors in the current building in June 2009.
Volunteers like Patterson, one of 125 current volunteers ranging from 13-year-olds to octogenarians, are integral to the running of the non-profit aquarium as they perform various duties, said Tina Kelly, the centre’s director of learning. “We are not only proud of our place in the community of Sidney but the community we have within our walls, thanks to volunteers.”
As a member of that community (which racked up 6,265 total volunteer hours between June 2019 and May 2020), Patterson has volunteered in administration, species collection, and youth volunteer mentoring over the years. Patterson has also helped with public outreach and educated centre visitors, said Kelly. “Now, I don’t like people,” interjects Patterson, drawing laughter.
Patterson’s past work as a naturalist on whale-watching boats, the Institute of Ocean Sciences, and with the Sidney Whale Museum, one of the precursor organizations of the centre, suggests otherwise and speaks to her passion for the ocean and its creatures, be they small or large.
Born and raised in Victoria, Patterson eventually found her way to Central Saanich, then Sidney, after having retired from her career as a medical technologist at the age of 48. By her early 50s, she was satisfying her passion for the sea through travel as well as her multiple volunteer roles, a passion that has filtered down to Patterson’s granddaughter, who is currently completing her bachelor of marine biology in Bristol, England.
“She is dedicated, tenacious, fun, and has a fantastic sense of humour,” Kelly says of Patterson. “She has a zest for life and lifelong learning that is inspiring. Her commitment to the (centre) combined with her confidence in truth telling, she has no doubt influenced the organization in ways we can’t measure. After 11.5 years, I am also proud to call her a friend.”
Patterson, for her part, says that she does not plan to slow down, even if she might have plenty of reasons to do so.
“I think part of living is that you are always learning and improving,” she said. “There is just so much there. I think you have to be busy all your life. I don’t care how you are or what you do. I think you have to have some type of passion.”
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