Leigh rides along on the MDC boat during camp

​It’s always a good thing when a registered nurse volunteers in the Marine Discovery Center’s camps and education programs.

Leigh Chegwin spent 48 years as an RN with a specialty in pediatrics and she has volunteered for the last four years in the center’s education program.

Read about Leigh in MDC’s December Volunteer Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa Mickey:

Q: Where did you grow up? A: I was born in Miami, but I moved to Atlanta when I was in the third grade. I lived there for the rest of my life until my daughter Rachel moved to Florida. She and her husband started a family and I decided to move back to Florida 14 years ago to be closer to my daughter and her family.

Q: When did you retire? A: I retired about six years ago. In my last job, I worked in the recovery room at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando. I worked there for about 10 years. Before that, I worked in the pediatric cardiac catheterization lab at a hospital in Atlanta, working with children who had heart defects and heart transplants. I was there for five years, but I’ve always worked in pediatrics. It was a rewarding career.

Q: It must have also been heartbreaking to see very sick children. A: It was heartbreaking at times. With the children with heart defects, you get very close to their entire families. We would see the children every two weeks when they came in for biopsies. We would see what strength it took these families to go through this with their children, but then you’d have a child who had a transplant who would grow up, get married and start their own family. I still keep up with two families that I worked with in Georgia.

Q: Where did you go to college? A: I went to nursing school at Berry College in Rome, Ga.

Q: How has being a pediatric nurse helped when you volunteer at MDC? A: I just try to get down to their level, whether it’s vocabulary or language, and always try to be calm with them. This past year was hard because of Covid and having to wear masks at camp. We couldn’t let the children sit on our laps or hug us. In a group of young campers, you always have a few children who just want to hold your hand and it was hard to tell them we could not do that. That was one of the hardest things we had to do at camp this year. But I’m proud to say we had at least 300 children at summer camp and we did not have one single positive case of the virus. Washing our hands, wearing our masks and keeping physical distance from the children worked. Being outdoors also helped.

Q: Were you fearful going into this year’s camp season? A: I felt like we could figure it out. I believed if we took all the precautions, we would be OK. I’ve also felt we had to get on with our lives while also doing these things the CDC was telling us to do. I believed the Marine Discovery Center would not have held camp if they believed there was a real danger of anyone getting sick.

Q: How did you find out about MDC and how did you first get involved? A: I kind of had it in the back of my mind that this would be a great place to volunteer and I always loved marine life and learning about it. My husband, sister and brother-in-law and I went on one of MDC’s sunset lighthouse boat tours and I thought, “I want to learn how to do that [be a naturalist/guide].”

Q: In what areas have you volunteered at MDC? A: I started out making oyster bags in the conservation program. I did one full day of working with shoreline restoration, but it about kicked my butt. I’m almost 70 years old and it was tough! After that, I got involved with summer camps, working in the micro-plastic program and I helped pass out MDC’s rack cards to the businesses on Canal Street. I mainly got involved with the education program.

Q: Why education? A: I like working with the kids and with the kids at camp when they go fishing. It’s fun to be there when it’s the first time they’ve ever gone fishing and they are excited about it. I love going to Disappearing Island with the kids and to watch how much they enjoy it. And I can’t sing high enough praise for Michelle [West, MDC Education Coordinator]. She really puts her all into it and makes sure these camps are fun, entertaining and the kids learn a lot.

Q: You really seem to love children. A: I have three children and between my husband and I, we have 12 grandchildren. I love it! Bill’s children live in the Oviedo area [outside Orlando] and I have a son in Oklahoma, a son in Colorado and my daughter lives in Apopka.

Q: Do you still volunteer at Shepherd’s Hope Clinic in Orlando and at Hospice House of Longwood? A: No, that was when I was living in Longwood before I moved to New Smyrna Beach 10 years ago. I volunteered at Hospice House, and Shepherd’s was a clinic for people who didn’t have insurance. I would go there and serve as a nurse.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about volunteering? A: Being able to do something that you really enjoy. Volunteering gives me the chance to do fun, meaningful things with children without the responsibilities of it being a full-time job. I can be flexible with the hours I want to work.

Q: Where else do you volunteer? A: I’m a deacon at the Presbyterian church on Magnolia Street. That can take up some time. Before the virus limited us, I used to visit shut-ins and our elderly population at home and in the hospital. We can’t do that right now.

Q: Do you have any hobbies?

A: Because of camp, I’ve learned how to fish. I enjoy working in the yard, reading and knitting. Before Covid, Bill and I liked to travel. We’ve been to Ireland, South America, Israel, Egypt and Alaska. Since we can’t travel internationally right now, we’re trying to drive to a lot of area nature parks.

Leigh and her husband Bill

Q: I bet you missed traveling this year. A: We actually went to South America. We left on Feb 29 and returned on March 29. When we got to Chile, we were supposed to disembark, but Chile wouldn’t let us get off the boat. The pandemic had started about that time. We went from Chile to San Diego and spent 10 extra days on the cruise ship. They wouldn’t let us off the ship. At least nobody was sick. By the time we finally flew home, we got an email from the cruise line saying there had been one reported positive case of the virus. So, who knows when we will be able to do international travel again? We have to be realistic.

Q: What do you appreciate the most about being part of MDC’s mission in the community? A: Everybody at MDC is so easy to work with. You can see the passion that everybody has about the lagoon and taking care of the environment. Now, my husband and I take a walk on the beach every morning and pick up trash. I even found a washback [juvenile sea turtle] and was able to help it. It gave me an opportunity to learn and hopefully, I can share what I learned with my grandchildren. My 10-year-old grand-daughter came to one of the summer camps this year and had the best time.

Q: What has been the highlight for you as a volunteer at MDC? A: I worked with Charity [Jackson] and she was the naturalist on the boat during camp when we had a woman bring us a washback. Charity understood the seriousness of it. All the children were on the beach playing, so we got all the kids together, got them back on the boat and went over to the Marine Science Center to drop off the turtle at the sea turtle hospital. The kids learned a lot about sea turtles that day.

Q: Why do you want to spend time volunteering? A: Because I feel like I had a pretty stimulating job after 48 years of nursing. There was always something new that I had to learn and I didn’t want to stop being able to learn new things when I retired. I’ve always enjoyed marine life and thought it was interesting.

Q: What has meant the most to you during your time at MDC? A: Just seeing and learning about the different wildlife here. I love the turtles, the jellies and the dolphins. And I love seeing the birds on the beach every morning. I play a very small part in taking care of these things with my volunteer work at MDC, but just like the kids, I keep learning.

Leigh (r) with fellow volunteer MaryAnne West