Volunteer Spotlight

Meet Marko Sillanpaa

Lake Worth native Marko Sillanpaa knew of Florida Oceanographic Society growing up, but it wasn’t until he became a Martin County parent that he began to visit the Coastal Center regularly. His four-year-old daughter loves “the fishy place,” so when Marko began looking for volunteer opportunities a year ago, FOS was a solid fit.

“I’m at my computer most of the day working from home, so I wanted to find a place I could volunteer outdoors,” says Marko. “In our visits to Florida Oceanographic, I realized FOS seemed to have fewer volunteers during the summer, so I started as an off-season exhibit guide on Tuesdays.  It was there that I learned about research opportunities.”

Marko is part of FOS’ growing Green Team, the group charged with care of the Butterfly Garden, landscape around the Center and more recently, the Shade House. “The Shade House was originally a place to park plants until we found a home for them, but we’ve realized that local homeowners who take advantage of our oyster reef restoration in the waters near their homes are also interested in native plants for their backyards.  We’re growing wild coffee plants, grasses and other native species.”

Marko works in enterprise document management, a growing field that involves use of technologies to manage document creation, organization and storage across large companies. He is applying his skills and expertise to help FOS evolve digitally. He is also part of the team working with the Florida Oceanographic’s Director of Scientific Research, Dr. Vincent Encomio, on a joint research project with Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce.

The Coastal Center has become a favorite place for both Marko and his family. The Sillanpaa family also has plans to chase the solar eclipse this summer.  “We’re going to start in St. Louis, and then drive to wherever the best viewing sites will be depending on the cloud cover,” says Marko. “I hope it’s one of those trips that will be a great memory for my daughter throughout her lifetime.”


Marko Sillanpaa Snapshot
Alma mater: Florida Atlantic University
Family time: Visits to the beach to picnic and fly kites
Hobbies: Kayaking, biking
Favorite eats: Carmella’s Pizza & Wine Bar
Honors: 2017 Community Spirit Award by global industry group AIIM

Meet Doug Ditmars

Growing up in Pennington, New Jersey, Doug Ditmars spent hours exploring the woods near his home. He never outgrew his love of the outdoors, and it was the nature trail that caught his eye when he first visited the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center. Now, nine years later, Doug has given more than 900 volunteer hours as a Nature Trail Guide and Gamefish Lagoon presenter.

“The nature trail is so unique to a person from the Northeast,” says Doug. “I’ve enjoyed learning about the mangroves, the plants and all of the wildlife along the trail, and I love being able to share it with visitors. Sometimes I teach them, and sometimes they teach me, and I can pass that learning along.”

Doug and his wife Jane retired to Stuart in 2008 from Easton, Pennsylvania, where Doug was an orthopedic surgeon, and Jane taught elementary school. While Doug gives his time to Florida Oceanographic, Jane volunteers teaching kindergarten and adult literacy. The couple makes frequent road trips to Rhode Island to visit their daughter, her husband and two grandsons, ages three and seven. They also like to spend time with their son in Pennsylvania.

Doug is a devoted birdwatcher and fisherman. He and his brother fish the local waters together on Doug’s boat, often preferring their fly rods to other types of fishing. Doug also likes fly tying. His time on the water translates into enthusiastic discussions with visitors about gamefish in the Coastal Center’s Gamefish Lagoon and getting people interested in fishing.  Which is exactly the reasoning behind the Coastal Center’s annual Game Fish & Fish Games, an event coming up on March 19th to boost kids’ skills, knowledge and interest in fishing.

Seining with visiting school groups, and oyster shell bagging are Coastal Center activities Doug also enjoys, but his favorite volunteer role is Nature Trail Guide. “I’ve seen bobcats on the trail, and one day, this enormous yellow rat snake emerged as we were talking about the black mangroves near the third boardwalk,” says Doug. “It’s a very special place.”

Doug Ditmars Snapshot
Cupid’s tale: Married 49 years to his high school sweetheart
Latest read: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, by Fredrik Backman
Favorite fins: Trout, large-mouth bass, tarpon, snook
Hobbies: Tennis, birdwatching, fly tying, fishing
Best eats: Riverwalk Cafe & Oyster Bar, Shrimper’s, Duffy’s

Meet Laura Elsenboss!

A molecular biologist by trade, volunteer Laura Elsenboss has spent nearly 150 hours in the last year engaging visitors at Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center’s touch tanks. Sharing marine science with guests of all ages is work she loves, and it builds on her previous experience as an exhibit guide at the Waikiki Aquarium in Hawaii. 

“This is an interesting volunteer role for me,” says Laura. “I like learning about the local marine life, and I really enjoy interacting with our visitors. The education we provide here lays the groundwork for their engagement and advocacy.”

Laura and her husband are long-time outdoor enthusiasts. The couple retired from Connecticut to the Stuart area in 2014, and then spent the next eight months bicycling on a 6,000-mile cross-country trip that took them through the northern Midwest and ended in San Diego. They camped their way back to Florida over the rest of the year, tackling U.S. Fish & Wildlife trail volunteer projects along the way.

Laura’s career in the pharmaceutical industry spanned nearly 24 years, and included a year-long stint in Hawaii. After retiring, her plan was to seek outdoor volunteer opportunities that would draw on her science background and interest in community education. She’s found her niche with Florida Oceanographic Society.

“As a volunteer, I want to be challenged and use all of my skills. The opportunities to get involved with FOS have been a great fit with my skills and interests, and my desire to support environmental stewardship in my community.”

Since starting in the spring of 2016, Laura’s been involved with oyster shell bagging, the Lights on the Lagoon event, and crafting oyster-shell angel ornaments for sale in the gift shop over the holidays. She’s given marine science presentations at the nearby Hutchinson Island Marriott, a partnership that delights the resort’s visitors while also increasing awareness of the Coastal Center and its mission of environmental stewardship. This year she also plans to expand her role within the Coastal Center’s Education Department  by helping with school groups that visit the Coastal Center.

“The education the Coastal Center provides for young visitors is so important – it sets them up for lifelong learning and interest in the marine ecosystems around us,” notes Laura. “And, kids impact their parents’ thinking and behavior. I’m hopeful that our education and outreach efforts can make a difference for families as well as in the larger community.”

Laura Elsenboss Snapshot:
Family ties:
Husband John, 7 grandkids across the U.S.
Favorite flicks: Titanic, Star Wars saga
Hobbies: Biking, cooking all kinds of cuisine
Famous for: Halloween 2016 cardboard Starfish costume
Latest project: Building and stewardship of Treasure Coast YMCA’s new Little Free Library

Meet Cheryl Wlodarski

Since moving to the Stuart area in 2015, volunteer Cheryl Wlodarski has become up-close and personal with a critical part of the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) ecosystem: seagrasses, through her work with Florida Oceanographic Society’s (FOS) research department. Cheryl has been highly involved in the Florida Oceanographic Seagrass Training Education Restoration (FOSTER) team, by working to restore seagrass in the lagoon. The team surveys private properties in the area and obtains owners’ permission for seagrass restoration work. FOS volunteers attach seagrass plants onto “mats” about a square foot in size, and Cheryl has donned her mask snorkel to plant the mats into the lagoon’s sandy floor.

“When I moved here, I knew I wanted to learn as much as possible about the ecosystem, and how we can rebuild and protect it,” says Cheryl. “The seagrasses provide habitat, nurseries, and food for many marine species, so they are essential to the health of the IRL. It’s very fulfilling work.”

Cheryl also helps to maintain the seagrass nursery tanks located behind the research lab, and participates in FOS’s monthly seagrass survey. FOSTER relies on the maintenance of these nursery-grown seagrass fragments to support ongoing seagrass restoration. She retired from her career as a middle school science teacher in California when her husband Stephen’s work brought them to Florida.

“Our school in San Diego was adjacent to the San Diego Zoo,” says Cheryl. “We shared teaching resources and a community garden with the zoo – it was like having our own back door to this amazing place. I’m so glad I’ve been able to continue using my science background and skills. Florida Oceanographic is also an amazing place to be.”

Over the last 10 months, Cheryl has given close to 200 hours to Florida Oceanographic through various volunteer roles including her work with the seagrass and as an exhibit guide. She also is a water quality tester.

“We can work to protect the environment in a lot of different ways here,” notes Cheryl. “Everything we do, from the seagrass surveys to oyster shell deployment to talking with Coastal Center visitors helps. I’ve even recruited my next-door neighbor as a volunteer. It’s great to be involved!”

Cheryl Wlodarski Snapshot:
Born in: California
Coastal kids: A son in NC, a daughter in NY
Go-to movie: On Golden Pond
Favorite eats: pasta, pasta, pasta, and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
Hobbies: Gardening, kayaking, paddle boarding
Has also volunteered for: Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, Molly’s House

Meet Paul Laura

Though he began volunteering at the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center just over a year ago, Paul Laura is already heavily involved in habitat restoration for the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). Paul initially became involved in the Florida Oceanographic Oyster Restoration (FLOOR) program, a program that recycles oyster shell back into the IRL to facilitate new growth. Oysters play a vital role in the ecosystem and a healthy oyster can filter 30-50 gallons of water per day. Paul is also working as a part of a team headed by the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce on a joint Hooked mussel research project comparing filter-feeding properties of Hooked mussels and oysters.

“Mussels provide high levels of water filtration, just as oysters do,” says Paul, who often bikes to the Center. “I wondered, ‘How can mussels help clean up the IRL?’ There’s nothing documented about mussels in this area, so we’re doing research to compare the filtration and digestion of algae by mussels versus oysters.”

Business and technical management was a part of Paul’s work career. Before he took early retirement, Paul spent many years with multinational conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company with diverse brands such as Fruit of the Loom, Duracell, Kraft Heinz, and Oriental Trading Company. Through his work, Paul, his wife Mary and son Michael spent more than a decade in Germany and Holland.

“While we were living overseas, my son had volunteer requirements, both locally and outside of Germany as part of his curriculum at the Hamburg International School he attended. Our whole family became involved with his volunteer work,” notes Paul. “Michael traveled to Ghana and Sri Lanka; once to help build a school, and later to Sri Lanka to assist in the cleanup after a tsunami. Participating or supporting some of these experiences reinforced how satisfying it is to give of your time. With retirement, one has even more opportunity to do it.”

Though Paul spent much of his career in management, he holds bachelor's and master’s degrees in science. His last position before retiring involved a new product development acceleration process for Research & Development at Berkshire Hathaway. 

When Paul and Mary moved permanently to the Jensen Beach area in 2015, Paul pursued an interest in marine biology at the Coastal Center after reading of the extensive efforts being made by FOS under the leadership of Mr. Mark Perry. He is a key volunteer for the research department through his involvement with oyster shell baggings and deployments, monitoring oyster and seagrass populations, water quality testing and other projects, as well as helping the organization with advocacy, community outreach and special events.  He also shares his time on projects at the Smithsonian Marine Station, Fort Pierce.

“The IRL is a unique and very special ecosystem, and it’s under attack,” says Paul. “It’s going to take a continued effort to get it headed back in a positive direction. I’m very pleased to be allowed a part in this effort by FOS, SMS and the Martin County Community to restore the living shoreline as seen many years ago.” 


Paul Laura Snapshot

New Year’s Eve hotspot: Sailor’s Return
Favorite author: Clive Cussler, Siddhartha Mukherjee
Fresh interest: Learning Dutch
Skilled at: pickle ball, tennis, golf
Travel plans: South Africa, New Zealand

Meet Ginny Douglass!

On Friday mornings, Stuart native Ginny Douglass combines her passion for gardening with her love of the ocean by volunteering at Florida Oceanographic  Society. Ginny leads the Green Team, a group of volunteers dedicated to maintaining the Butterfly Garden and other memorial gardens on the Coastal Center’s grounds. She brings energy and spirit to her work, which includes greenhouse operations in the Shade House.  Ginny recently earned her 1500-hour sticker.

“We’re always trying new things with the gardens to attract butterfly species and maintain natural gardening practices,” says Ginny. “We’re currently experimenting with fresh sargassum seaweed we collect out in the ocean as a natural fertilizer for the plants.”

Ginny’s love of the water began at an early age. Before she turned one, her father, a ship captain, moved the family from Connecticut to Stuart by boat. He went on to captain for film star and local legend Frances Langford for several years. He also built Ginny a small pram which she sailed up and down the St. Lucie for hours after elementary school let out. Today, Ginny and her husband Barry keep a 16’ flats boat for the Indian River Lagoon, and a larger boat for offshore fishing.

At Martin County High School, Ginny was close friends with Bonnie Pitman, sister to Florida Oceanographic Executive Director Mark Perry. It was this connection that led to Ginny’s volunteer service. After living in Maryland and then Ft. Lauderdale for 35 years, Ginny moved back to the Stuart area. She ran into high school friends who encouraged her to volunteer at the Coastal Center.

“About 11 years ago, we began as water testers and participated in oyster shell bagging,” notes Ginny. “I was also an exhibit guide for a few years. Then, an opportunity came up on the Green Team, and I was glad to get involved. I learned vegetable gardening from my mom, and at the Coastal Center, I’ve expanded to propagating and maintaining native plants. It’s a really good workout, too.”  

“There’s so much you can do at the Coastal Center, and it helps so many people,” she adds. “It’s just a great place!”


Ginny Douglass Snapshot
Family: Husband Barry, one son, two granddaughters
Professional career: Chemist at Gillette
Favorite book: Watership Down
Another volunteer role: Girls’ softball coach
Skilled at: tennis, sailing, water skiing
Travel plans: Bermuda, Rocky Mountains

Meet Danny Rubino!

It was less than a year ago that Danny Rubino first visited the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, yet he’s already earned his 400-hour volunteer award sticker. “I was looking for a volunteer opportunity related to education and the environmental stewardship, and a friend suggested the Coastal Center.  As soon as I visited, I knew this was the place I wanted to be.”

Danny works as an exhibit guide and sometimes helps with additional research projects. He also serves as a turtle scout for the annual turtle walks. A college softball coach for more than 15 years, Danny began volunteering for Florida Oceanographic Society during his recovery from colon cancer. His coaching experience and his passion for teaching make him a natural with the Coastal Center’s young visitors. He also holds an associate degree in education and a bachelor’s degree in history. “We’re a unique learning experience for children,” notes Danny. “Once they see all of the marine life here or touch a stingray, they’re hooked. I’m here to help spark that enthusiasm.”

A Florida native, Danny has a lifelong interest in the environment. He volunteered at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, and also worked as a turtle scout on several beaches before his coaching career took him to Georgia, the Carolinas and international tournaments. During this transitional time, he’s re-immersed himself in his interest, volunteering at the Hobe Sound Nature Center as well as at the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center. Recently, he also took a part-time position at Jupiter’s scenic Riverbend Park, where he assists in designing education programs which integrate nature and history for elementary school students.

It’s clear Danny has a passion and a talent for helping people aim high, especially kids. With his mentorship, five of his former softball players are now in promising marine science careers. He has coached many high school students in sports camps and clinics, always offering advice on what they can do to prepare themselves well for success in college and beyond. When he finds a young visitor particularly interested in his touch tank marine life, he often secures a chance for that child to speak with one of the Center’s scientists or education staff.

“When I watch kids put their hands on a horseshoe crab or sea urchin in the touch tank, and they watch and touch something they wouldn’t normally see, it takes on a whole new meaning for that child,” says Danny. “I live for this stuff!”


Danny Rubino Snapshot
Recently read: Guns Across the Loxahatchee
Favorite eats: Pusateri’s Chicago Pizza
Hobbies: Snorkeling, kayaking, reading history books
Cheers for: His coaching friends’ softball teams
Alma mater: Young Harris College
State record-holder: “I was the smallest baby ever born in Florida at that time.”

Meet Intern Angelina Bruno!

Intern Angelina Bruno Likes Hands-On Learning at Florida Oceanographic

When Angelina Bruno decides to do something, she commits. Angelina volunteers 25-30 hours each week as an Animal Care Intern, helping to prepare food, clean habitats and target-train the many marine residents at Florida Oceanographic. On her days off, she is pursuing a degree in neuroscience at Florida Atlantic University.

“I’ve always wanted to work with animals, and thought I’d be a vet until I volunteered for an animal clinic,” says Angelina. “FAU’s neuroscience program will give me the science foundation I need for a career in animal behavior.  With my internship, I’m learning all kinds of things I wouldn’t get in the classroom.”

Growing up in Jensen Beach, Angelina had visited Florida Oceanographic many times as a child. She felt it would offer a strong opportunity for gaining hands-on experience with animals. Since starting her internship in May, she’s already given more than 300 hours.

“I love the learning-by-doing here, and interacting with the animals has peaked my interest in so many ways,” notes Angelina. “For instance, I never really gave sharks much thought, but working with the ten nurse sharks here every day and seeing how they respond so quickly to target-training has led me to take much more notice of them.”

“If I had to pick a favorite task here, it would be interacting with the sea turtles,” she adds. “They all have such individual personalities. We clean their shells every week, and it’s clear that Turt really loves it! I’ve enjoyed getting to know each of them.”

When Angelina can take a spare moment from her college studies and volunteer work, she puts her energy into a charity she started with some friends about 18 months ago. The Jonathan Swanson Project (JSProject.org) aims to encourage education, support research, and bring awareness to mental health and suicide prevention.

“I’ve learned that if you are going to do something, you should give it your all,” says Angelina. “You will earn the respect of the people around you, and you will get more out of it yourself. I’ve had the leeway to do that here at Florida Oceanographic, and it’s been a tremendous experience.”


Angelina Bruno Snapshot
Born in: Jensen Beach
Spare time: On the water in her 22’ Wellcraft
Hangout spot: Carson’s Tavern
Pets: 2 chinchillas and 2 cats
Favorite college class: Biological Basis of Behavior (how the brain works)

Meet Oyster Restoration Volunteer Tom Dee

Whether it’s fixing machines, helping to restore marine habitats or tending to lush Florida landscapes, Tom Dee has an interest in setting things right.  Though this FOS volunteer moved to Stuart just two years ago, he’s already been a huge help to the Center’s research team, especially with habitat restoration.

“When my wife and I toured the Center, I saw the information on the Oyster restoration project (FLOOR), and it sounded interesting,” says Tom. “I started helping with the shell bagging and the deployment to create new reefs. Conserving the Indian River is the right thing to do, and I’m glad to be a part of it by helping to restore the oyster population.”

Though Tom was born at Naval Air Station Key West, he grew up in Massachusetts. He and his wife Eleanor, also a New England native, lived just outside of Boston during Tom’s career with GE’s Appliances Factory Service business. Visits to Eleanor’s family brought the couple to Stuart often over the years, and eventually, the lure of sunshine and consistently pleasant weather led them to settle in Stuart.

“We’ve always been very active outdoors - skiing, hiking, bicycling, tennis and golf are some of our favorite things to do,” notes Tom. “The winters in New England tend to close you in, though.  We’re happy being able to hike and bike year-round here.”

In addition to FLOOR, Tom also volunteered with the Center’s effort to restore native plants, helping to plant 200 small mangrove trees near the Mansion at Tuckahoe. He’s worked on the quarterly seagrass survey as well.

Outside of FOS, Tom enjoys weekly landscaping work at his home, and for his sister- and mother-in-law, who live in houses just down the street in their Parkwood neighborhood. During football season, he and Eleanor never miss a Patriot’s game at Duffy’s.  Tom names Key West as his favorite place to visit – he and Eleanor have returned there half a dozen times over the years after their honeymoon in 1979.

This summer, the couple will take up their volunteer work again at FOS and the Lyric Theater after a 30-day road trip up the East Coast to New England. “With the recent water crisis, it can be discouraging, but volunteers at the Oceanographic persevere,” says Tom. “Everything we do at the Center will make a difference.”

Meet Phil & Gerry Tafoya

Once a week, Phil and Gerry Tafoya serve as a water quality testing tag-team.  Phil collects and tests a water sample off their dock on the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, then Gerry emails the data to the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center as well as the Marine Resources Council (MRC) in Vero Beach. It’s a weekly service the couple has been performing for 18 years since Florida Oceanographic Society began the water testing program in 1998. They’ve also provided the results to MRC for more than 25 years.

“We’ve always been drawn to be on or near the water, so we’ve always been involved with conserving it,” says Phil. “We’ve been on the Rivers Coalition Board of Directors, served as volunteers with the Sheriff’s Marine Unit, and been part of conservation leadership for a local fishing club. We feel it’s important to be as involved as we possibly can.”

With the wet season about to start, water testing provides important information to use in the fight to stop the discharges from Lake Okeechobee. These discharges from the lake into the St. Lucie River Estuary, Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River Estuary have proven disastrous for the ecology of these waters. In fact, the Coastal Center recently amended its mission statement to include advocacy for the protection of the coastal ecosystems. The Tafoyas have taken up the battle personally.

“We were one of 22 plaintiffs in the Rivers Coalition lawsuit against the federal government to stop the discharges,” explains Phil. “For about four years, we were involved in meetings, we gave depositions, and it required quite a bit of time. The possible settlement was earmarked for water cleanup, but unfortunately, the suit was dismissed on a technicality [by the Federal Judge].”

In addition to water testing for the Florida Oceanographic Society, Phil and Gerry are always happy to take scientists and conservationists out on their boat for studies and data collection.  Over the years, they’ve been actively involved in lagoon seining, and underwater sound studies related to spotted sea trout.  They’ve achieved the life on the water in Florida they’d pictured when they closed their dental laboratory business on Long Island, New York about 25 years ago.

“It’s frustrating to see the discharges continue when the evidence of the damage is so clear,” says Gerry. “We can’t give up the fight, though.  Protest, donate and get involved, but also be thoughtful in who you vote for.  This is not just an environmental issue – it’s a very political issue too.”