To me, the best part of Challenge Detroit is the opportunity to meet with and pick the brains of those living, working and giving in the city. Their insight and stories are an invaluable resource as I work with the other fellows to navigate Detroit’s many different communities.
One of the best stories I’ve heard so far this year was from Vance Patrick, a Belle Isle Conservancy board member who’s been actively involved with the aquarium since before its closing in 2005, during our last challenge with the Belle Isle Conservancy.
If you ever get the opportunity to walk through the Belle Isle Aquarium with Vance, be ready for the flood of emotions you will inevitably feel. Every tank, ceiling tile, volunteer and fish has a story in the aquarium, and Vance knows them all. If you’re lucky, you may just visit the aquarium on the same day that he volunteers—you can spot him by his thick mustache and bright blue volunteer polo that he proudly sports. And luck (along with a lot of hard work) is sometimes just the thing that the aquarium needs. In fact, it is by luck that Vance happened to be volunteering the same day that Mr. Fenton, a first-time visitor, choose to come to the aquarium.
While walking down the corridor and admiring the unique, sea-green ceiling tiles meant to mimic the feeling of being underwater, Mr. Fenton noticed that the aquarium’s skylights were covered. Wanting to learn more, he looked for a volunteer, and it just so happened that the volunteer Mr. Fenton approached was Vance. Out of all the days Mr. Fenton could have visited, and all the days Vance could have chosen to volunteer, the stars aligned and the two were brought together. As a result of their conversation, Mr. Fenton chose to support the aquarium and donate the funds to refurbish and reopen the skylights.
Months later, the aquarium was closed for the day, and there was only Vance, a few other volunteers and the fish present to witness the first unveiling of the refurbished skylights. The boards were carefully pulled away from the glass, and natural light shone into the aquarium for the first time in years. As the rays of sunlight hit the tanks, and the volunteers stepped back to admire their handy work, the fish swam to the front of their tanks. They could feel the difference between the artificial light they’d been surrounded by, and the natural glow now flooding into the century old building and illuminating their tanks.
On September 7, 2014, the support of Mr. Fenton was honored at the 110th Anniversary of the Belle Isle Aquarium, and a plaque dedicated to Mr. Fenton’s late son, Aaron Elliot Fenton, was placed in the lobby of the aquarium saying, “Your light will continue to shine through forever in our hearts.” Now, thanks to the dedication of Mr. Fenton, Vance and the other volunteers, light will also continue to shine down into the beloved Belle Isle Aquarium for years to come.