For about two years, Kay Vallejo worked with her son at Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center at Redondo Beach to help reassemble the bones of a gray whale, which had washed up at a nearby beach.
The skeleton now hangs from the ceiling in the entry way of the MaST Center, where the Federal Way resident has volunteered for a number of years.
Vallejo has dedicated so much of her time to the education center and aquarium, she recently achieved a milestone of 5,000 volunteer hours.
“I came down here for an oceanography course and never left,” Vallejo said of how she first became familiar with MaST.
Vallejo said she started college later in life, at age 58. As a single mother working at Truman High School in Federal Way in 2003, she took advantage of a program that offered paraeducators like herself incentives for going to college, and she enrolled at Highline College.
A diver since 1963, taking an oceanography course at Highline made sense to her, and she soon became a regular at the MaST Center, which was, at that time just a double wide trailer with a lean-to as the aquarium out back.
Vallejo said she began by cleaning out the fish and touch tanks before class for extra credit. She graduated in 2008, the same year as her youngest son, with an associate’s degree in education.
When Truman High School became a Bill and Melinda Gates School, she began taking a small group of students there every Tuesday and Thursday.
“We would be here from 9 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon, and they learned nothing but science,” Vallejo said.
Although she retired as a paraeducator in 2011, Vallejo still plays an active role in helping youth learn at the MaST Center, as both a Saturday supervisor and through her participation in a summer lunch and education program through AmeriCorps, the Des Moines food bank and the MaST Center.
“I don’t educate. I share, and it’s a passion of mine,” she said. “Not only is education a passion, but the environment is a passion of mine.”
As a Saturday supervisor, Vallejo oversees the youth volunteers at the aquarium, when it is open to the public once a week, and makes sure they stay on task and on schedule and are where they are supposed to be. She said she requires her young volunteers to carry a reference book in their apron pockets and use it as a resource when they are asked questions they can’t answer, thereby sharing further knowledge while learning, themselves.
In the summer, she volunteers at the summer lunch site, and toward the end of the free meal for youth, works with children at MaST or community parks, teaching the students about the environment or other lessons.
Vallejo said, on any given day, the students may learn about barometric pressure and humidity, or they might dredge the water off of Redondo Beach for plankton and then look at their catches under a microscope. They also visit parks and learn about plants and discuss such topics as the similarities between their hands and maple leaves.
“So it gives them an idea that plants are like we are, and it teaches them respect for the environment,” Vallejo said.
She said she was recently at an auto mechanic shop, and she and the mechanic started discussing student activities in the summer, and she mentioned what she did.
The mechanic asked her if she taught about barometrics and humidity, and the two realized the auto mechanic’s children had participated in the summer science program and shared their knowledge with their father.
The idea that children are taking what they learn from Vallejo and sharing it with others pleases her greatly, as does volunteering at MaST, which she said is a “marvelous” facility.
While she loves working with the children and her Saturday supervisory duties, she said her favorite thing to do at the aquarium is training the wolf eels and working with the octopi, although MaST currently does not have an octopus at the moment. At MaST, volunteers also receive young salmon from the Muckleshoot Tribe and then raise them until they are big enough to be released back into a creek. They raise jellyfish, as well.
As a MaST volunteer, Vallejo is also part of the marine mammal stranding team, where she and others answer calls of a stranded marine mammal on the beach. If the animal has died, Washington Fish & Wildlife is called, and a basic necropsy is performed, and then the remains are returned to MaST, where students can complete a full necropsy if they wish.
With the exception of the summer lunch and education program, Vallejo has largely scaled back her volunteer work, although she still volunteers at MaST as a Saturday supervisor once a month. She’ll also come in for meetings and when she is needed to cover a shift.
Although she is 72, she is not inclined to stop volunteering at MaST until she has to, and she’s not sure when that will be.
“I don’t know. It makes my heart happy,” she said. “Like I said, I don’t teach. I pass on learning. I like to share.
“This is what keeps me going, and working with kids keeps you younger,” she added.
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