Following Lifelong Dream or Continuing Professional Past; Staying Engaged as We Age

Sep 26, 2014

I arrive at Dickerson Park Zoo mid-morning just as zoo volunteers, called docents, are caring for animals and getting ready for the day.  People with a passion for animals, environment and the outdoors seem to be drawn to this kind of work. That includes retirees. 

Donna Mueller is taking a falcon outside to set on a perch. She speaks to the bird of prey gently while persuading it onto her gloved arm.  Mueller, who is in her late 50s, says more people now are retiring younger in age and spirit than before.    For her, retirement opened up the door for volunteering and an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“I think for me the wildlife aspect is always something I wanted to do in high school, and it didn’t happen that way for me.  So now that I can do it, it’s fulfilling that need for me.  And I think that probably happens to a lot of people.  They wind up in a field that maybe was not what their dream job would be—but the one that paid the bills.  So once you’re retired, you can do whatever you want.  And not only that you want to do it—but I think you need to,” Mueller says.

Mueller began her journey as a volunteer in Arizona working with wildlife before moving to the Ozarks in recent years.  As a lover of the outdoors and wildlife, she says volunteering at the zoo here was just a natural fit.

“I adore the animals and I love the opportunity to be close to them.  Again I love seeing them out in the wild but there’s nothing like a raptor sitting on your arm.  It’s just incredible,” Mueller shares.

Education is a key component of what docents do as part of their volunteer mission.  Mueller shares that while she started volunteering for what she calls “selfish reasons,” she also enjoys getting the message of conservation across to people of all ages.

“I want people to understand why we should care--you know, what these animals are about. They’re not just things for us to beat up and abuse and not care about.  They play an important role in our planet-- our environment and they’re here for a reason--not just to look good,” says Mueller.

Being active, continuing to learn, and the social component are all important aspects of any volunteer opportunity, says Mueller.  

“Don’t be afraid to do it because you don’t think you know enough.  That’s huge.  When I started my volunteer work in Arizona I didn’t know a thing about birds.  I was a furry animal person and didn’t really have an attraction to birds.  All these places where you volunteer have training programs—they will teach you and start you out slowly.  And if it’s something  you want to do and don’t know about it—that’s my point—do it anyway and keep your mind growing,” Mueller says.

Sherri Hedgepeth, one of Dickerson Park Zoo's docents, is putting one of the owls out on its perch to enjoy the beautiful morning.
Credit Theresa Bettmann / KSMU

Sherri Hedgepeth, another retiree and docent at Dickerson Park Zoo, agrees. She highly recommends volunteering as a great way to spend retirement.  Her love of conservation began in high school and college which led to careers in wildlife management with both the Corps of Engineers and Conservation Department. Hedgepeth says volunteering helped her get back into the swing of things while keeping in line with her professional background.

“Well it makes you feel good for one thing to get out and help others.   It gives you something to do.  When you’re retired and you’re not of an age that you feel like you need to be retired, like I was, you kind of get lost in what to do.  And there are only so many things you can do at the house.  So it helps me get out and have something that I enjoy doing,” Hedgepeth says.

Hedgepeth says as part of the zoo’s educational mission docents can visit places like schools and senior centers.

“And that’s what we do.  We take animals and bio facts which are like furs, skulls, eggs, feathers things like that so they can touch and feel.  Learn about not only about the animal but also the animal’s environment and what they’re like.  And we also put the conservation touch in there and conserving that environment for them,” says Hedgepeth.

Hedgpeth shares volunteering can be a great way to feel productive and vital as we age, while passing along the legacy of knowledge to future generations.

"Phoenix" is a bald eagle who was originally hatched in Wisconsin before finding her home at the Dickerson Park Zoo. She is a regular participant in Eagle Days, and part of the conservation mission geared toward educating and protecting eagles.
Credit Theresa Bettmann / KSMU

“If you’ve thought about it even an inkling in your mind, that maybe you’re interested, just get out there and check.  Any type of volunteer work that you might be interested in, and see where it leads. You know, check into several and you might find a niche for yourself,” says Hedgepeth.

Mueller and Hedgpeth both agree that they will continue volunteering for as long as they are able.