Tennessee Aquarium Volunteer Celebrates 10,000 Hours Of Service

Thursday, September 10, 2015 - by Thom Benson
Volunteer Fran Hiestand feeds Big T
Volunteer Fran Hiestand feeds Big T

When the Tennessee Aquarium first opened in 1992, Fran Hiestand’s family was among the first to purchase a membership. “I visited a couple of times and was really impressed,” said Ms. Hiestand. “But I always left wanting to learn more.”

That curiosity about the plants and animals only deepened when she signed up for volunteer docent classes in 1993. “I thought I could really learn about everything in the Aquarium by becoming a docent,” said Ms. Hiestand. “I started working in the galleries on Good Friday that year and we had big crowds. I fell in love with volunteering right away.”

Over the next 22 and a half years, Ms. Hiestand has logged an incredible 10,000 hours of volunteer service working in virtually every department at the Aquarium. She has cared for plants and animals, greeted guests like old friends and even helped deliver educational outreach programs to area schools. “Fran is probably the most dedicated volunteer I’ve ever seen,” said Chris Bowman, the Aquarium’s manager of volunteer services. “She’s fascinating to talk to because she’s lived so much of the Aquarium’s history and knows so much about the animals and exhibits. She’s a walking encyclopedia.”

Today Ms. Hiestand volunteers four days each week, serving in the horticulture department, husbandry department caring for seahorses and penguins and still enjoys fielding questions as either a docent or Backstage Pass Tour leader. “There are times when a group on the Backstage Pass Tour has so many questions it’s like there’s firecrackers going off,” said Ms. Hiestand. “They want to know everything and I’m happy to tell them.”

While she enjoys greeting guests, Ms. Hiestand says her heart really warms while she’s behind the scenes caring for the animals. “I like the penguins the best,” she said. “It’s hard work with a lot of scrubbing, but who cares if you’re scrubbing and you have penguins stomping on your feet.”

Watching Ms. Hiestand at work in Penguins’ Rock, it’s clear she has a lot of pals. Big T, one of the male Gentoo Penguins, is normally a tough bird to get to know. “Most of the volunteers say he has a mean streak, but he and I are friends and get along just fine.”

If you do the math, Ms. Hiestand has donated more than 416 days to the Aquarium. That’s an amazing record of non-profit service. Ms. Hiestand sort of shrugs it off saying the time, “just sort of mounted up.” She truly finds volunteering satisfying and isn’t thinking about slowing down any time soon. “The staff here is excellent to work with and I get to do something different just about every day,” she said. “It’s just a lot of fun.”

There are 40 students enrolled in the current volunteer docent class. They will graduate in November with another class beginning in February. It will be be 2037 if any of them serve the Aquarium as long as Ms. Hiestand.

Bowman says there’s also a volunteer SCUBA diver recruitment starting in January. But that’s the only area that doesn’t interest Ms. Hiestand. “I’ll do anything at the Aquarium I can with my head above water. I don’t dive.”

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