Local & State
The Bellingham Herald

POSTED: Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2009

Bellingham Explorations grad found volunteerism and herself

KIRA MILLAGE - THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

When Heidi Johnson graduates from Explorations Academy, she knows her next step will be attending Western Washington University in the fall.

Just don't ask her what she'll study - she has too many interests to decide on just one. The 18-year-old loves animals and has wanted to be a veterinarian for a while.

But she also enjoys teaching. And ballroom dancing.

And she's involved in activities for all of them. "Free time is overrated," she said, waving her hand.

For nearly eight years, Johnson has worked at Mollywood, a parrot rescue and sanctuary based in Everson. The sanctuary is home to about 400 birds, Johnson said, and she helps tend to all of them. "It's not easy getting up in the morning and saying, 'OK, I get to feed 400 birds!'" she said, adding it takes her about five hours. "It's a chunk of work, but I love that feeling of accomplishment when it's done."

Johnson started at the sanctuary when she was in elementary school, volunteering for a couple hours after school on Wednesdays. Now she's there basically whenever she has free time. "I'm really comfortable there," she said. "They're family."

Even though Johnson started at the sanctuary because she was interested in birds - she has her own 18-year-old umbrella cockatoo - it's been the friendships with founders Betsy and Nate Lott and her own personal journey that have kept her there.

"My personal transformation while I've been there has been amazing," she said. Johnson was a quiet girl with low self esteem who wouldn't look anyone in the face, but after developing a passion for something, she gained confidence. "Now I can come up with the wittiest comebacks," she said, proudly. "I'm not shy anymore!"

About two years ago, Johnson started taking ballroom dancing lessons, and quickly discovered her inner-performer. "I've been told I'm a good instructor and I'm a good dancer," she said. "I'd like to videotape it so that I can see."

Johnson also discovered a love for teaching after volunteering for Animals as Natural Therapy. Explorations Academy takes a more experiential approach to education, giving students opportunities for real-life experience and application of skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom.

Johnson started volunteering there through school but enjoyed the experience so much that she's staying on. She hopes to continue all her volunteer activities while she's a college student. "I like being here with everyone," she said.

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