If you are ever at the Marine Discovery Center on a Wednesday afternoon, Maia Leibowitz will be the volunteer answering the phone, ringing up purchases and checking in guests for afternoon boat tours. She’s been doing that since 2014, making the native New Yorker one of the most experienced volunteers on the center’s Welcome Desk. Read about her in our March Volunteer Spotlight with MDC staff writer Lisa Mickey:
Q: How did you find out about MDC? A: I don’t remember, exactly, but when I saw this place, I knew I wanted to volunteer here because I had some free time to do it.
Q: Where did you grow up? A: I grew up in Nanuet, N.Y., in Rockland County across the river from Westchester. I lived there until my 40s and then I moved just north to Orange County, N.Y.
Q: When did you move to New Smyrna Beach? A: I moved here in 2012. I had family here and moved in with them.
Q: What kind of work did you do in New York? A: I worked as an administrative assistant and as a hospital senior computer operator in using Hospital Information System (HIS). That software system deals with everything in a hospital and I handled the hardware part, too. We had to fix stuff. It was a hard job.
Q: Did you study computers in school? A: Yes, I studied data processing at Rockland Community College, but I also did studies in sciences and humanities there. As a young adult, I went to performing arts school. I took acting, dance and singing. I had a vocal coach and I was learning how to sing more operatic music. I also was in community theater. I was mainly in the stage crew, but I got a few acting parts.
Q: Did you go to the hospital to work right out of school? A: No, I worked for Osteonics Corporation, which was bought by Stryker Corporation. I worked there for nine years and was directly involved in osteo-implants used for knee replacements. I learned to use lasers, which were used in identifying part numbers. We lasered parts for traceability, and for FDA compliance and regulations.
Q: When did your career path change? A: Well, 2008 hit. The economy crashed and the jobs went. It was much harder to get a job after that. I did a lot of temporary work, but I ended up leaving New York and coming here.
Q: When did your automobile accident happen? A: That actually happened in 2012, about a month after I moved to New Smyrna. I was driving to Ocala to visit a friend. I hadn’t had a lot of sleep when I drove and I wasn’t really thinking straight. I went left when I should have gone right and I clipped another car and ran head-on into another vehicle. My legs and feet ended up under the engine block of my car. It was terrible. I became part of the car! They had to use the Jaws of Life to get me out, but there were good Samaritans there who stayed with me. I was airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Gainesville. Fortunately, nobody else got hurt in the wreck. Unfortunately, I think the classic Mustang that was being hauled on a trailer that I hit bit the dust.
Q: How severely were you injured? A: I broke my left foot in six places, all of my toes and my right ankle. My feet were pinned and crushed. I was in the hospital for about a month. Now, I have to walk with a cane and there’s arthritis in there.
Q: Did the accident affect your ability to continue working? A: Most jobs I could probably get here would require me to stand on my feet and I can’t do that for a length of time. I don’t think I can get an office job even though I have a lot of experience in that. I do little things. I even deejay online.
Q: Really? For whom and what kind of music? A: Mostly classic rock or electronica. I do it on iTalent through Virtual world. People from all over the world listen to it. Every Friday night I host a classic rock set. I lean toward progressive rock and really like the band YES. I get paid a little bit for it as “DJ Maia.” I also do some work in connection with Burning Man, which is held online quarterly. We have an official Virtual Reality online Burning Man. I’m their lead deejay. It’s awesome. And sometimes I read poetry, too. It’s just whichever poet fits the theme. Mary Oliver is a nice poet to read for our shows.
Q: What are your hobbies? Obviously, you are an online deejay. A: Yeah, I enjoy that. I also make jewelry out of minerals and gems. I’m interested in metaphysical things and I’ve gone to UFO meetings. There’s actually a big presence in this state with an interest in doing research on UFO sightings. I build stuff, too. We had a Burn theme that was magic, so I had a fantasy build and built this temple thing with beautiful effects.
Q: This is pretty high-tech! I’m trying to visualize what you are talking about. A: Yeah, but I do a lot of this because I can’t do real-life stuff anymore. The Virtual online world gives me a way to do some neat things. Believe it or not, the average age in the Virtual world is people in their 50s. There was one woman who was 90. Sometimes these are people who are homebound or they are too sick or handicapped to go out and do things. In the Virtual world, they have an avatar and they get to dance. They can [virtually] do things they can’t do anymore. Through [a Virtual community called] Second Life, I really have been able to have a second life.
Q: I would guess your life changed after your accident. Do you spend more time indoors? A: Yes, but even the University of Florida offers classes in Virtual World. Lots of universities do. That means they are not limited to the locations of the students. You can have a chemistry class where you can [engage with] molecules or you can take an anatomy class and enter the brain. You can’t do that in a traditional class.
Q: It sounds like this Virtual world opened up some new doors for you. A: I’ve met a lot of people. I didn’t know anything about it until after the accident. Once I got a computer and was up to it, I got involved and I got pretty hooked on it. You can do or be anything you want. I’ve been in Virtual dance shows. I choreographed a dance and did one based on the Circus Horse painting by Marc Chagall.
Q: How does it make you feel to be able to expand your mind and capabilities virtually? A: Sometimes that stuff feels as real as sitting here talking to you. On that Sunday when I was playing the music for Burning Man, it just felt so good. There were dancers and it was very uplifting. It really helps my day. But I need to be in the real world, too. I can’t just be there. I’ve also learned some real-world skills through this.
Q: The Burning Man festival we sometimes see on the news is a day-long event, but how is yours different? A: We actually have one that lasts a week. When I deejay the one we do in October, they have a screen and can see what we’re doing and vice versa. Thousands of people watch it. I did the music that was streamed live and it was really cool. The person who created these builds to do the actual burn gave me an idea of things she wanted and I gave her what she wanted in the music. I made the music really dramatic.
Q: So is this type of Virtual entertainment mostly just a for-fun thing? A: There’s actually an educational part of it, too. Educators and librarians like it. There are Virtual applications for any organization. There’s even an application for nonprofits.
Q: As an MDC volunteer, have you worked solely at the Welcome Desk? A: Mostly, but I have also worked at street festivals in our MDC Tent. And I used to help with the oyster mats when we did those because I could sit down and do them.
Q: What is the challenge of working at the Welcome Desk? A: When the phone rings and there are people waiting to go on trips and other people waiting to buy things. It’s a little bit of juggling.
Q: What do you enjoy most about volunteering? A: Just the satisfaction of trying to do a good job here. Plus, I meet interesting people. I really want to help give guests a great impression of MDC.
Q: What have you learned about marine science through the Marine Discovery Center? A: I never knew about the role of oysters, grasses or mangroves and their part in our ecosystem. I had no clue. I used to think seawalls were good. I’ve also learned how fishing line affects marine life. And I’ve learned about microplastics. I used to do water testing for MDC’s citizen science program until I lost my dock in Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Q: Your family lives on the water at Turnbull Bay. How scary was that hurricane? A: The water came almost up to our back door. I have video of it. We didn’t leave for Hurricane Matthew, but we left the next year for Hurricane Irma. We had minor damage with siding pulled off the house and blown through the screen [lanai] into the pool. It looked like a little tornado came through.
Q: Why do you want to volunteer? A: I enjoy doing it and it gets me out of the house. And it keeps me in touch. I feel like I’m doing a good thing when I’m here. Plus, I got to ride on the truck with MDC’s ginger bread house in the Christmas Parade last year.
Q: What excites you the most about helping MDC with its mission in our community? A: I feel like I’m a part of our mission in a small way. We’re improving and mitigating the damage that has been done. You can recover a shoreline. You can reverse things. I want to see things cleaned up. We live near the [New Smyrna Beach] airport and we see them drop fuel or something when they fly over. When they do that, you can see an oily sheen on the water. That can affect so much, even from our little bay. I see people catching crabs and fishing there all the time, so that’s not good. I know more now and some things make me very sad. I wish I could do more hands-on things to help because I know that Turnbull Bay connects to the Atlantic Ocean and what we put into our bay ends up there.
Q: What has been the highlight for you at MDC? A: It’s a very friendly place and I’ve been treated so well. What I like is that guests come here for a nice little trip on the boat, but then they often leave with more understanding about how what we do affects our waterways and the things that live there. They may even leave thinking about how they can change things. I think what we offer is way more than just an eco-tour. It has a purpose. It’s a trip with a difference.