a life with purpose

Michelle Regan
December 29, 2020

What do you want to be when you grow up? Some people know their answer as a kid. Most of us figure it out as we go. For Jon Gelman, it took three tries over 40 years to find the right career. In what he calls “another lifetime,” Gelman was a commercial pilot. But something about that quintessential childhood dream job wasn’t satisfying.

He recognized an emerging need to track air freight electronically. It was an innovative idea for its time and an accurate prediction. Today, we obsessively track packages from the time they leave the warehouse to the moment they arrive at our front door. Gelman started his own telecom business that tracked packages by email and spent the next 32 years working his way up to executive-level positions at various telecom companies.

But still, something wasn’t quite right.

“I realized that I wanted to do something that I felt could make a difference in the world,” he says. “That’s when I decided to volunteer with the monk seals.”

Jon Gelman, President of HMAR

Sea change
Today, Gelman is president of Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR). He started the nonprofit, which specializes in marine species conservation and emergency response, after finding purpose in volunteer work.

A few months into volunteering with another nonprofit, it became obvious the organization was going to close. Gelman became concerned about who’d take over the field work. What would happen to the animals?

“I felt like it was important for someone to step up and make sure the work continued,” he says. “Having a business background and having run my own business, I don’t think I made a conscious plan. How hard could it be?” A lot harder than he thought, it turned out.

HMAR personnel help an entangled sea turtle (activity conducted pursuant to 50 CFR 222.310)

Gelman’s days start before 4 a.m., thanks to a dachshund who prefers an early breakfast. Gelman hops on the computer to take care of emails and proposals before the HMAR hotline opens at 7. After that, he’s on call for emergencies just like any other employee. Although he tries to finish his day around 5:30, rescue work doesn’t heed the clock.

“The thing I notice most is I used to finish a day of work in telecom. The day’s over, I did my job,” he says. “In this field, it’s all-encompassing. There’s never a day off. It’s on your mind all the time. On one hand, it’s bad because you can’t put it aside. On the other, there’s important work that’s being done. I’m part of something larger.”

In 2019, HMAR’s eight employees and 80 volunteers handled more than 17,000 field responses and activities, performed more than 1,000 rescues and escalations on animals such as monk seals, sea turtles, birds, dolphins,  and whales, and helped more than 300,000 people through outreach and education. They continued rescues through the COVID-19 pandemic and moved educational materials online, including distance learning videos for teachers.

HMAR team member rescues a seabird that needs medical care (permit #MB32724D-0)

Seeing volunteers’ impact makes Gelman most proud. “Just watching volunteers in action, realizing that they’re doing this out of the goodness of their heart,” he says. “They’re not getting paid. Some of these volunteers are putting in a lot of hours every month. Just observing them doing what they do is inspiring.”

Interested in volunteering with HMAR? Join the team. Or call (888) 476-HMAR (4627) toll-free.

Above photo: Hawaiian monk seal mom with her newborn pup

All photos courtesy of Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR)

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