MARQUETTE - Several days each week after class at the Bothwell Middle School, friends Alex Cannoot, 10, and Josh Wetelainen, 11, head to the U.P. Children's Museum to take on the role of "explainers."
A volunteer opportunity for youth ages 8-18, the explainers are trained to help out around the museum, working with the collection of reptiles, helping to keep displays in order and, most importantly, helping other young visitors to experience what the museum has to offer. With additional training, explainers can also move up to working in the museum's store and answering museum phones.
"An explainer is someone who works at the museum and they can explain stuff to the people about the animals," Wetelainen said. "Usually picking up the Lego blocks. Taking out the blue-tongued skink. We see if anything's out of place and we put it back where it belongs.
"It feels like we're the heroes of the museum."
"We can rush to the rescue," Cannoot added.
Cannoot said he was the first of the two to join the museum's group of explainers after seeing a notice about the program.
"We were looking through the newspaper and we saw they had explaining at the museum," Cannoot said.
After he began volunteering, Wetelainen became interested in the activity.
"I said, how do I join that?" Wetelainen said.
Explaining is open to all area kids, and even those who might visit the area from time to time. Those who are interested in explaining attend an initial training session, held the first Friday of each month from 4-6 p.m. A mandatory parent training also takes place from 5:30-6 p.m.
Explainers work at the museum seven days a week, and are eligible to participate in special activities throughout the community.
"The foundation of the museum is youth empowerment," said museum Director Nheena Weyer Ittner. "We wanted to have kids be leaders in the museum."
Both Cannoot and Wetelainen said one of their favorite parts of volunteering is getting to work with the museum's collection of reptiles, which include turtles, lizards and two snakes.
As part of their explaining duties, the boys teach visitors about each of the animals - their personalities and characteristics - and handle them so visiting kids and parents can have the chance to touch a snake or see a blue-tongued skink up close.
Although he was initially not too sure about handling the reptiles, Wetelainen said being an explainer helped him broaden his horizons.
"What really got me into reptiles was when I started working here," he said. "I wasn't afraid of turtles, so it brought me over to lizards."
Mostly, however, their favorite part about volunteering is just getting to be part of the museum.
"It's kind of whatever needs doing," Cannoot said of his favorite part of being an explainer. "Probably just doing everything we do."
"I really like volunteering," Wetelainen said. "If nobody volunteered, everything would be out of place."
Giving young people the chance to volunteer in the museum means those young volunteers have some degree of ownership over the museum, giving them the chance to give input on exhibits and activities.
"The children's museum wouldn't be as special if it weren't for all the kids involved in it," Weyer Ittner said.
Those who are interested in being trained as an explainer can contact the museum at 226-3911.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.