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An inside job

Chicago institutions have thousands of volunteers who supposedly do it for the joy of helping out. But hush-hush perks sometimes sweeten the deal-and we don't mean free tote bags.

By Lauren Weinberg |

Not just anybody gets to hang out with Nickel, the green sea turtle who celebrates her five-year anniversary in the Shedd Aquarium’s (1200 S Lake Shore Dr, 312-939-2438) Caribbean Reef exhibit on Wednesday 23. But here’s a little-known fact: A few lucky volunteer divers get to feed Nickel and her neighbors—who include a seven-foot-long moray eel and a tarpon who’s lived in the exhibit since 1978—while giving presentations about the 90,000-gallon habitat. Roger Germann, a Shedd spokesman who used to be a volunteer Caribbean Reef diver, says it’s as much fun as you would expect. He adds the divers have to keep special tabs on Nickel, whose unusually buoyant shell—cracked by a motorboat collision before the turtle joined the Shedd—makes her prone to getting tangled in the divers’ hoses.

Unfortunately, just because you’ve watched Finding Nemo 132 times doesn’t mean the Shedd will let you take a dip: Jackie Rucker, who oversees the Shedd’s volunteers, says Caribbean Reef divers must be at least 21 and have completed 30 hours of open-water diving. She adds that most of the aquarium’s volunteer divers (whose qualifications are just as extensive) work in other exhibits, such as the Wild Reef, where their passion for diving makes maintenance tasks such as glass cleaning and algae removal palatable. The Shedd has approximately 175 volunteer divers “and there is a one-year waiting list for certain positions,” Rucker notes. But don’t get too excited: No volunteers get to swim with the dolphins or sharks.

If you prefer to remain on dry land, try the Field Museum’s McDonald’s Fossil Preparation Laboratory, where ten volunteers handle newly unearthed specimens under scientists’ supervision. Volunteer coordinator Marianne Bloom admits the lab positions are difficult to get, due to high demand and the requirement that applicants commit for at least a year. So it’s fortunate that all 600 Field volunteers get free admission to its Museum Campus neighbors, plus the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry.

When they aren’t showing off the city’s skyscrapers, Chicago Architecture Foundation docents gain access to places where the Architecture River Cruise doesn’t sail. Volunteer-services manager Angie Blumel says docents take “hard-hat tours of buildings under construction” and “trips with exclusive access to architectural masterpieces” worldwide. This month, they’ll get a sneak peek at Aqua, Chicago architect Jeanne Gang’s highly anticipated 82-story condo tower at 430 East Waterside Drive.

Blumel and most other coordinators we talked to emphasize that volunteering is a free, er, priceless source of higher education: CAF docents take seven months of classes and tours to become certified authorities on Chicago’s architectural history. Volunteers at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago History Museum, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art get no-members-allowed lectures, tours and behind-the-scenes collection viewings all the time. Considering how many museums also offer volunteers free parking and gift-shop discounts of 20 to 30 percent, why stop at mere membership?