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Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea

As a not-for-profit community organization, the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea connects the public with the Salish Sea Bioregion and its ecosystems through engagement, knowledge and awareness.

This one-of-a-kind aquarium and learning centre offers an interactive, informative and hands-on experience with the Salish Sea through self-guided visits, daily programs, group and school bookings, and special events and lectures.

A discussion with Deanna Mathewson MSc, Director, Volunteer & Business Development

How would you describe your experience in the Sidney community?

“Well, I first got this position in the summer of 2017; most of what I say are my observations based on my time working here. I am consistently reminded that the Centre has been here for a long time and has had a long-standing impact on the community. In the years I have been here, we have had a great relationship with the Town of Sidney, and I mean not just the Mayor and Council but also this environment, where we are situated and the local businesses surrounding us.

Many of our visitors are locals that have year-round memberships, and our volunteers are involved in a number of different local organizations. It is a great community because there is a powerful sense of family and belonging.” “Even through the height of COVID, we had strong pillars to help us through it; with the help of the Sidney BIA and the interest of the community, it would be hard to fail with that kind of support system. In the last 18 months or so, it has been highlighted even more because you think in a small community, a small non-profit organization, is probably not going to be able to sustain itself, but that’s not at all what happened. Of course, we did take advantage and had access to resources that were made available to us through different governments, provincial and federal grants. But the local support was amazing! There were several months in 2021 where we sold more memberships to locals than we did in 2019. The community has told us several times since we reopened in 2020, families, parents, grandparents, telling us thank you for being open, thank you for providing a safe place for us to bring our families, we can go at our own pace and feel safe.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new non-profit, what would it be?

My one piece of advice to a new non-profit would be to get involved in the community wherever you can be. We want to engage with community members and we do so through organizations like the Sidney Events Advisory Group, Sister Cities Association, Peninsula Celebration Society; we get involved in just about everything that the SBIA and the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce does; we participate in the Festival of Trees, Sidney Sparkles (Christmas Parade), Canada Day Parade, Treat Street and are a charity partner for the Sidney by the Sea Run; we organize and host the World Oceans Day event, where we take up the entire Beacon Park for a community event. We do social media outreach to let the community know what we are doing and why it’s important. In this town, people are very apt to get engaged and stay engaged; they want to contribute anyway they can and want to get involved themselves.

This year because of certain Halloween events not happening due to COVID, we put on A-Scare-ium of the Salish Sea that was planned by our aquarist team. The whole Centre was decorated, and entry was by donation, with half the proceeds going to the local Lion’s food bank. We surprisingly raised $2000 with about 350 people coming in 3 hours. We didn’t really advertise it, we just put it in our monthly newsletter, and a few social media posts. We felt that was a true testament to the community and how excited they are to support and see the Centre carry on.” “To summarize, I would say if you are an NGO, find ways to engage with the community, with the locals, and you’ll see the rewards in no time.

What are the core values of your organization?

We have spent a lot of time focusing on the core values of our organization as we have recently completed a review of our strategic plan, which will be officially launched in November at our AGM.” Our core values are:

  1. Honouring our place here within the Salish Sea bioregion- land that has been stewarded by the Coast Salish peoples for many thousands of years.

  2. Environmental sustainability, that’s probably relatively obvious. How to protect and sustain the environmental values within the Salish Sea region.

  3. Animal welfare, as we host thousands of marine animal ambassadors here.

  4. Learning. We provide learning opportunities whether it’s passive or more directed learning; we hope that people have the opportunity to learn something every time they come through.

What are your short term and long-term goals as an organization?

It’s hard to think of any short-term goals that don’t involve some recovery or getting through the pandemic, but we would love to get school groups happening again; that would be tremendous. It would be great to bring back some more of the programming that we had before COVID as well. Previously on Tuesdays, we had a program that was a big draw for parents with toddlers, and of course our very popular touch pool. We had to put away our puzzles, games and stuffies due to the pandemic; we’d like to bring those back out when it is safe to do so. Another would be our evening lecture series, where we would get anywhere from 25 to 120 attendants. We also want to start a proper beach cleanup; we are already in the early planning stages and hope to involve the community.

Long term goals would be as a recognized education leader in matters related to the Salish Sea. We want to be a leader in local community aquariums, exemplifying professional excellence in animal welfare, strengthen our bond with other aquariums such as Gibsons and Ucluelet Aquariums. We want to build more and stronger bridges with the local Indigenous communities, have more opportunities to highlight and share traditional ecological knowledge; to have more opportunities to host exhibits that show the history of the place we live on and the people that live here. Our goals include expanded outreach, engagement, inclusion and sustainability as a Centre and an organization.

Can you describe the impact that the volunteer program has on your organization?

We have volunteers that have been here since the doors opened back in 2009. In January, we held a small celebration for one of our volunteers who contributed 3000 hours! There were articles in the local papers and magazines. People have been amazingly supportive of this Centre, and that is just one example of several volunteers with over 1000 hours. We have volunteers ranging from 13 years old to people in their 80s. We’ve been here long enough now to see kids that were in our summer camp programs sign on to volunteer positions in middle school/high school, and then get employed by the Centre.

The Centre wouldn’t exist without the volunteers; we wouldn’t be running the type of programming that we have been able to both before and during the pandemic. Most of the comments we get in our customer feedback mention how great our volunteers are and their interactions with visitors. The volunteers can be so inspirational and engaging with visitors as they are pretty passionate about the animals and their habitats in the Salish Sea. Hopefully the trade-off for contributing so much time and effort in volunteering is in the the learning opportunities and a sense of belonging here.

What is your favourite Marine animal?

Pacific Salmon; I spent a lot of time doing fieldwork from Clayoquot Sound to Princess Royal Island on the BC Central Coast. So many watersheds, I’ve watched salmon in this epic struggle to get upstream and past every impediment, every challenge that is in their way. Everything that stands between them and success (spawning). It’s like going through the biggest obstacle course; it’s amazing that any of them make it. I have so much respect for an animal with that level of endurance.”