Cambrian: Opinion

Leslie McGarry: effective altruism in a steelhead suit

Leslie McGarry, in costume as Sammy Steelhead, joins a Coastal Discovery Center docent, Alice Yamada, in greeting a visitor.
Leslie McGarry, in costume as Sammy Steelhead, joins a Coastal Discovery Center docent, Alice Yamada, in greeting a visitor.

Effective altruism uses evidence and reason to direct donations and actions toward the well-being of all. Effective altruism, commonly reduced to EA, is a blend of philosophy, academe and a social movement.

The movement encourages EA through career choice, or focused giving and/or volunteerism.

One such EA nonprofit organization. 80,000 Hours is dedicated toward encouraging students to seek a productive career that will best benefit planetary issues.

The 80,000 Hours website reduces the EA philosophy most simply:

▪  Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: How can we use our resources to help others the most?

▪  Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.

▪  But it’s no use answering the question unless you act on it. Effective altruism is about following through. It’s about being generous with your time and your money to do the most good you can.

My interpretation is that EA attempts to help the altruistic person to focus on both one’s time and effort to make the world a better place. And it would seem that without a direct alignment with the EA movement, many practice EA anyway. Case in point, Leslie McGarry.

When working at her desk as a CPA for the Department of Justice office in Fresno, Leslie McGarry probably never imagined that her future would include greeting visitors to the Ocean Fair at the Coastal Discovery Center in a steelhead fish costume called Sammy Steelhead.

But once the former Virg’s Landing building in San Simeon Bay was converted into the Coastal Discovery Center — a joint venture between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and California State Parks in 2006 — McGarry began her 11-year stint as a center volunteer docent. Retired, with her husband, John, to Cambria after a 30-year career as an accountant, McGarry was among the first trainees to undergo a “comprehensive training program to learn about local history as well as the natural and cultural resources in the area,” according to the Coastal Discovery Center’s website.

It was during one of the center’s public outreach events when the enthusiastic McGarry volunteered to don the Sammy Steelhead costume character to the delight of visiting children.

“I love the ocean and wanted to learn more about it,” McGarry said.

Her training taught her not only the area’s history and natural history, but more about how local watersheds are integral to our marine environment. The training also included sea life education, from massive whales and northern elephant seals to microscopic plankton plucked from the waters below San Simeon Pier.

And after meeting, greeting and informally educating literally thousands of visitors to the center, McGarry said she loves her volunteer time there. She said the positive results she’s witnessed via her bringing new information to the visiting students who return with the parents is personally fulfilling.

She recalled a weekend when a family wandered into the center and the boy was captivated by the computer monitor that showed the microscopic life floating about in a single drop of ocean water captured under a slide and magnified by a microscope, as part of the center’s citizen science program. The youngster even went so far as to name one of the microscopic “beasts” Kraken, a fictional sea monster.

The family returned to the center several times, McGarry recalled.

“When we did an outreach at the Cambria middle school, the same boy was there and started sharing with the other kids what he learned at the center,” McGarry said. “It’s exciting when a child globs onto something.”

The Coastal Discovery Center will begin recruitment for new docents this spring.

“If you are interested in all aspects of the ocean and want to learn and share it with other people, you will receive educational training and meet people from all over the world,” McGarry said. “And the other docents are great to know.”

McGarry essentially practices effective altruism, as do the many other volunteers for local nonprofits that train informal educators who address our environment and history.

Call the Coastal Discovery Center for more information about docent training at 805-927-6291.

Charmaine Coimbra’s column appears the fourth Thursday of each month and is special to The Cambrian.