Volunteer of the Year

Meet our 2019 Volunteer of the Year, Elaine Steffenauer!

Elaine Steffenauer, the National Aviary’s Volunteer of the Year, has been volunteering at the National Aviary for nine years. The resident of Bethel Park is a familiar and friendly face for National Aviary staff and regular visitors. As a docent, Elaine is in the National Aviary’s Wetlands and Tropical Rainforest habitats weekly, talking with guests and answering their questions about the dozens of birds in each habitat. Each day is an opportunity to learn more, she says. “Every day I have a new question. Visitors are always asking questions, and they are all different. Some of them I have to look up, which I think is great – people are here for a reason when they ask detailed questions!” She encourages visitors to take their time, and ask questions—even if she needs to look up the answers. “The National Aviary is a small building, but there are 150 birds in the Wetlands, and almost 90 in the Tropical Rainforest, plus a sloth. The people who have the best experience are the ones who take their time an talk to the docents and volunteers.”

“Every day I have a new question. Visitors are always asking questions, and they are all different. Some of them I have to look up, which I think is great – people are here for a reason when they ask detailed questions!”

It was a broken down car that started Elaine’s volunteer journey. Her daughter was interning at the National Aviary. When she encountered car trouble, Elaine began giving her rides to the Aviary, staying and wandering through the habitats during Anna’s internship shifts. Eventually, a staff member approached her about volunteering. She began volunteering a few times a month. After retiring from her job as a preschool teacher in a daycare, a position she took because it enabled her to bring her daughter with her to work, she started volunteering more regularly. Her daughter, Anna, is now a National Aviary employee and manages the Commissary, where all of the animal’s food is prepared daily.

Elaine is drawn to the African Penguins. She feeds the colony, facilitates Penguin Encounters, and enjoys learning about them through hands-on experiences. Having grown up in the country where circling and soaring birds is a common site, she is fascinated by seeing raptors like eagles and falcons up close. But, her favorite bird, she says, is “whatever bird I’m looking at in the moment. They are all wonderful!”

During the National Aviary’s more than three-month closure earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elaine kept in touch with her fellow volunteers. “I didn’t realize how good of friends we are. We learn from each other and want to help each other. I really missed everybody,” she says. She and other volunteers also received regular communications from the National Aviary, providing updates while the Aviary’s doors were closed. “It was just so nice that the Aviary would reach out to us and share what they were working on; I felt reassured and happy to be connected.”

“It was just so nice that the Aviary would reach out to us and share what they were working on; I felt reassured and happy to be connected.”

Elaine came back to the National Aviary the first day she could. “I could not wait to be there! I came back the first day we reopened!” Communication and planning helped the return to volunteering go smoothly, and made her feel comfortable coming back after the absence. On her first day back, she took a walk through the habitats, glad to see all of the birds after more than three months away. Then, she says, “I got right back to docenting.”

The National Aviary is proud to called Elaine Steffenauer our Volunteer of the Year!

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