Skip to main content

Every child deserves a butterfly moment

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Standing in the sun-soaked tent at Molbak’s Butterfly Garden, we are surrounded by fluttering pollinators, gorgeous blooms and the giggles of some very special visitors. They wait, holding very still, anticipating a lucky butterfly landing. 

Gabriana and her little sister Asuzana, 3 years old, soak up the magic of a butterfly overhead.

“I really think they will land on me,” an optimistic 4-year-old Emilio explains to his mom. The butterflies seem to flit and dart just above the laughter of this group of toddlers. These kiddos and their parents are here with a group called YoungLives, which offers support and provides resources for teen moms and their young children in the greater Seattle area. YoungLives is part mentorship and part community resource for young mothers (primarily middle school through high school-aged) at a time when they may feel isolated from family, friends or schoolmates. YoungLives is an offshoot of YoungLife, a nondenominational Christian ministry for adolescents. 

The YoungLives Seattle office works with around 30 young mothers at any given time. Jenni Steinke, YoungLives Seattle Coordinator, explains how this group of moms provides support for each other as well as receives mentorship from volunteers in the community. “We meet monthly, and usually try to do something that is easily accessible for young mothers who are often still in school and working at the same time. I think across the board, the biggest thing for the girls is that the group provides support, a safe place where they can come hang out with other adults who aren’t judging them and other teen moms who have shared experiences. For many of our girls, they don’t come from a place where getting pregnant as a teen has any support, so to be in a place where other people are actually excited about their pregnancy—it’s seen as a positive—is really empowering for them.”

The YoungLives group meets once a month to spend time with one another and pick up items such as diapers, formula or clothing that has been donated to the group. Sometimes they are able to visit places like the zoo together. Through Woodland Park Zoo's Community Access Program (CAP), we partner with hundreds of local organizations such as YoungLives to provide complimentary zoo tickets to community members each year. 

Sometimes the moms come to visit the zoo on their own with their babies, but oftentimes they are able to visit as a group and bring family members like parents or siblings. Family time is really important for these young parents who are incredibly busy with school, work and parenting.

We spoke with Gabriell, Gabriana and Amanda to learn more about what access to the zoo means to them.

Amanda and Marshall, 2 years old, check out some pollinators in the Molbak’s Butterfly Garden.

We first speak with Amanda, while her 2-year-old son Marshall fully investigates a bee balm flower.

“I moved here from Boise, Idaho. I was a teen mom and so I was out of high school at that point, so I didn’t have a lot of friends around, and I found the group on Facebook. They are really welcoming; they help my son a lot. 
Visiting the zoo allows me to take my son somewhere and show him animal life; we do live in Seattle where there are mostly squirrels in the city, so taking him somewhere where I can show him new things and educate him about the environment... it’s easier to save the environment if you can see what you’re saving. 
Since we have social media, I’m connected with the other moms on Facebook and we get together when we can. I mean we’re moms, we’re working, so when we get together it’s always great to see each other and catch up.”

As Marshall’s blond curls duck around the path, Amanda reminds him to move slowly here in the garden. He’s inquisitive and curious and she is patient and attentive. Just like other families, they are here to connect with nature, but also to spend time together in a beautiful place. 

“The girls come back to YoungLives because they feel loved and supported by our volunteers in the community and that is huge,” says Jenni.  “For some of our girls, a zoo visit means that they get to have the experience of a normal childhood for their kids. This is something that otherwise would probably be unaffordable to these young moms. With the zoo's Community Access Program, their zoo becomes accessible and their kids get to run around and see animals. Access to something like this creates a really nice opportunity for feeling like they are truly part of the community.”

Gabriell takes in the blooms and color of the pollinator plants.

For Gabriell, the sense of community is the most tangible reward for participating in this group. 

“For me YoungLives is more of a safe place. I feel like especially for our group of teen moms, you basically get a chance to be around people who have the same problems as you, you feel like you’re not alone in the world. There are a lot of resources there. You also meet a lot of cool people—I’ve been  friends with some of the moms for years. Our kids have grown up together and went to camp together—to not have this would be like not having a safe space where you can be comfortable and be yourself.  I do one day want to become a YoungLives leader and share moments like these with other teen moms. 
We actually come to Woodland Park Zoo every year for WildLights and that is pretty fun. It’s a cool way for them to bond with other kids their age and socialize. Also, just for education, they learn a lot. My son has been asking a lot of questions!”

Gabriell, her son Z’aedyn, 4 years old, and her boyfriend Pedro. Z’aedyn’s favorite moment was saying hello to the napping grizzly bear and touching all of the plants. “He loves the plants!” says Gabby.

Gabriana agrees with her friend Gabby:

“What young life is for me is a group where we just support each other, we have mentors, we have adults who we get to talk to and get to know. We get to meet every month, but I actually wish it was more often. We get to all come together and be with people who care about us. We have familiar friends who are in the same situation as us and we can relate to. Just like a safe place, where we can always turn to and always get to do fun stuff like come to the zoo.”

Gabriana and Emilio crack up as a butterfly comes really close to their noses!

Gabriana’s boyfriend Ralphie chimes in, “I can say, it’s a group that, you know if you need help with any type of resources, you know diapers, formula, there are people to help you. If you have any parent problems, you know they have staff you can talk to as well as counselors who can get you the resources you need and whatever it is, someone will help you.”

Z’aedyn, Taylon and Emilio are good buddies.

“I think it’s really cool to visit the zoo,” says Gabriana, mom of 4-year-old Emilio, “I am a big fan of the zoo and the animals and I think it’s a great way, a healthy way, for us to bond with our kids and do something productive and fun and let the kids be outside and learn and just experience a lot of new things. They are exposed to new things here that they haven’t seen before."

Gabriana and the other families here today are all close. They’ve watched each other’s children grow and it’s obvious their friendship is super-strength.

Emilio (4 years old), Asuzana (3 years old), Gabriana and her boyfriend Ralphie strike a pose in front of the caterpillar shed.

In addition to access to resources, the YoungLives participants are paired with volunteer mentors from the community who provide support, offer advice and are just there to listen. Not being judged is a recurring theme that keeps coming up when we ask participants why the group is so important to them. For these young women, society can be harsh, but from our perspective their kids are here burning off energy, asking a million questions and soaking up more zoo facts than most staff probably have stored away—just like every other kid who comes to visit.

Gabriana, Asuzana and Ralphie relax among the daisy patch. Pollinators aren’t the only creatures attracted to beautiful flowers.

We are grateful to these strong, independent and optimistic young women who have taken the time out of their very busy lives to bring their children to the zoo. Families like theirs will change the world and help protect habitats for wild creatures all over the globe. When it comes to successfully implementing social change and conservation advocacy we need every member of our community to be on board.

Sometimes you have to growl like a tiger, even in the butterfly garden. Gabriell’s younger brothers Braylon and Jaylon make the most of it while their sister is being interviewed.

We believe that many moms like Amanda, Gabriana and Gabriella would benefit from access to their zoo whatever their means or motivations. Our Community Access Program works with over 600 community partners and local organizations to make a free visit to the zoo possible for more than 50,000 people every year, but we can do better.

This summer, King County voters will have the opportunity to significantly boost access to science, arts and heritage educational programming. If passed by vote, Proposition 1 - Access for All will provide funding to Woodland Park Zoo and more than 350 community-based organizations to expand access to learning experiences and remove barriers for underserved communities throughout King County. Ballots will hit King County voter mailboxes this week and we urge you to VOTE YES on Prop 1.

Exhibit attendant Sam Graham gives this crew the scoop on caterpillar morphology.

If you’d like to know more about YoungLives and ways that you can help support young families in Seattle, you can visit: We want to extend a special thanks to Jenni Steinke and Seattle YoungLives for helping us tell this story and for their continued participation in the Woodland Park Zoo Community Access Program. 

Jenni and the YoungLives group give us their biggest grins after lemonade and cookies in the Microsoft Pollinator Patio. 

 We wish Gabriell, Amanada and Gabriana all the best and we hope to see them often!