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A hobby turns into classroom fun

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 28, 2002

Mary Alice Dunham has a gift for identifying and highlighting details. She was once an accountant and an auditor, jobs based in searching for details.

Details of another kind now have become a hobby she thoroughly enjoys. Dunham collects and preserves rare sea shells. She also teaches children about these shells, which, she is quick to point out, are no ordinary shells. The majority of her collection of more than 1,000 come from Indonesia and cannot be found in Florida waters.

Dunham researches, catalogs and lists every shell, from the largest conch to the smallest mollusk. Each shell has a story, and Dunham tells these stories, focusing on how a small detail can be transformed into a precious jewel of the ocean.

Dunham began collecting shells in 1968 while she was working for the U.S. government in Jakarta, Indonesia. However, she didn't become impassioned about the hobby until she found a book on shells and realized that she had the majority of the shells covered in the book.

"From that point, I was hooked. I was fascinated by the formation, the type and the families of shells," says Dunham.

After her experience overseas, Dunham returned to the United States and eventually settled in Washington, D.C. While there, Dunham continued studying and gathering information about her collection. Additionally, she began lecturing and exhibiting her shells. She has shown her collection at such places as George Washington University, the Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1977, Dunham moved from Washington to Clearwater, to be near her mother. She did not begin volunteering until after her retirement in 1995. After retiring, Dunham decided to volunteer for the Pinellas County Schools' Speakers Bureau and give lectures about her shells. She also joined the Clearwater Marine Aquarium as a volunteer.

Now, three to five times a week, Dunham takes her shell collection to the classroom and tells stories about these rare and beautiful creations. Her lecture is interactive and fun, allowing the children to touch the shells and ask any questions. Shae says, "I use the shells to teach children about life and how something as small as a sea snail can make something so beautiful as its shell."

Often the teachers test the children on the material from Dunham's presentation. She says, "It is rewarding knowing the instructors respect what I am teaching the children."

When asked whether she feels her volunteering has been worthwhile, she replies with an emphatic "yes." She says that even though she is teaching the children, it is really she who is learning. "I love volunteering with children. I feel like they are my own, and I am constantly learning something new from them."

Dunham travels throughout Pinellas County, visiting schools from north Dunedin to south St. Petersburg. She speaks to all grades, from prekindergarten to high school. Her dedication and love of children push this senior to continue her volunteer efforts. Dunham says she will not take a break from volunteering as long as she remains healthy.

"I am 77 years old, and I will keep volunteering as long as I can. There is a great deal of reward in volunteering, and every little thing you do makes a difference. In fact, I try to get my friends to know the benefits of volunteering. It is worth all the efforts."

Dunham joined the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, which helps connect people ages 55 years or older with the needs of the community. This past August, RSVP created a new project for those seniors interested in volunteering with children. Dunham is one of the many seniors participating in this special project, which includes mentoring at-risk youth, tutoring children of all ages and more.

If you would like to volunteer with children, or volunteer in Pinellas County, please call RSVP at (727) 327-8690, ext. 22.

Betty Hayward is director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program in Pinellas County. Write her in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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