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Heavenly Skies: How do I become a docent at the observatory?

By: Sharla Benis, Special to Gold Country News Service
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If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Community Observatory, you’ve met docents who guided you through the Universe. Maybe they showed you Saturn through a telescope for the first time. Or, maybe they explained the life cycle of a star. Or, maybe they just shared a bad astronomy joke. In any case, you probably walked away knowing something you hadn’t known before.

The very first time I went to the observatory as a visitor was about four years ago. It was simply the word free that lured me. It became obvious though, by the end of the night, I had found a little gem of a place. You see, there was a very animated docent who had this amazing green laser pointer indicating the area where the center of our galaxy was. It might have been the 700th time he had pointed to that area, and the millionth time he explained how the green laser pointer worked, but that simple act made quite an impression. It stirred in me a sense of wonder. I put it on my to-do list: learn more about astronomy.

Of course, the next year, that item was still on my to-do list. I hadn’t taken any action. But I did visit the observatory again for a second time. The docent staff wowed me all over again, sharing their enthusiasm and love of the night sky. I was inspired. At the end of the night, it was just a simple question I asked, a question that every docent loves to hear – “How can I learn more?” The suggestion was to become a docent, which only required a commitment of at least two events (four hours) per month.

I applied and was accepted. A mentor was assigned to help me along. I went through docent training classes and spent a summer learning basic telescope operations. Soon after, I took a college astronomy class. All along, other fabulous docents taught me the ropes.

Fast forward to now. I have the honor to spark the sense of wonder of our visitors. It’s fun, too. You should hear some of the questions that kids ask!

There is an extra bonus in it for me, as I live in a light polluted part of Sacramento valley. I really appreciate the dark skies of the observatory. It’s amazing the number of stars to be seen with just the eyes. It’s also quite lovely in the day time. As many other docents do, I spend a few minutes at dusk, just looking at the natural scenery and taking in the fresh foothill air.

Most important is the satisfaction of serving the community through volunteer work. This gem of a place would not be able to educate the public without the dedicated staff of volunteers. Won’t you consider being a part of it? There are positions for all levels of experience. If you have any questions, come visit us on a public night. And if you’re ready, applications are available on the website at http://www.communityobservatory.com/documents/DocentApp.pdf.

Sharla Benis is lead docent for the Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory in Placerville.