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Game Changers: A shining example of inclusion

Posted by Carolyn Stevens-Wood, Development

ZooCorps, Woodland Park Zoo’s teen volunteer program, is truly committed to making their team an inclusive and accessible experience for all. We were thrilled when the Special Olympics USA Games highlighted our teens as one of their 2018 Game Changers.

Woodland Park Zoo is committed to making the zoo a place of inclusion in which people of all backgrounds and abilities feel welcome and inspired to make conservation a priority in their lives. ZooCorps is truly exemplifying this promise through their dedication to Jonah and others with special needs. 

ZooCorps is Woodland Park Zoo’s teen volunteer program and extends to all teens, no matter their abilities. The program allows teens to explore different departments within the zoo from animal care to horticulture and provides education at exhibits and camps. Jonah, a member of the ZooCorps team with special needs has been welcomed, included and able to work towards being an animal trainer, something he’s wanted to do all of his life.

Jonah plans to run the zoo one day, and he is well on his way.

Makaela Lambert is a trainer and mentor in the ZooCorps program and says that she doesn’t know where her life would be without it. “The community there is like nothing I have ever found. It’s somewhere I can be myself and bond easily.” This sense of community extends to all teens, no matter what their abilities are. Makaela speaks about when she first met Jonah, a ZooCorps member with special needs. “He was nervous, but we clicked right away. I have a lot of precious memories with Jonah now. He has become my buddy.”

Through the ZooCorps program, teens are able to explore different departments within the zoo from animal care to horticulture to public programming. Year-round, they provide education at exhibits and camps, and participate in environmental service projects out in the community.

Aleah Reed is also a ZooCorps member and trainer. She remembers Jonah being very quiet in his first training session, but eventually coming out of his shell and being able to speak confidently in front of groups of people. “You know how you can tell on someone’s face how they are feeling? Well, it really looks like Jonah’s at home here now.” She gives full recognition to Makaela and another trainer, Isaac Schuman, for helping Jonah to open up. Wisely, she said that you just have to give people a chance and get past your own uncertainties. “After working a shift with Jonah, I realized how funny and sweet he was—and what a good time I had with him!” 

ZooCorps teaches teens about leadership skills, teamwork and how to interact with the public. But it appears to be more than that. The teens talk about ZooCorps as being a part of a close community. “We really are one big family. We are all here for the same reason and we are all on the same level.” Because of these teens’ openness and respect for others that may be different from them, Jonah is now a part of this ZooCorps family too.

Jonah’s mother, Kate O’Leary, said they first learned about ZooCorps when they were looking for an internship for Jonah. “I was a little hesitant at first, but I had the opposite experience that I’ve had with other organizations. We were encouraged right from the beginning.” Kate said that Issana To and Lyra Dalton, ZooCorps Youth Engagement staff, kept reassuring her that Jonah would do just fine in the program. “ZooCorps is a very diverse group. There was no question about accommodations, they just included Jonah in everything that he was able to participate in.” She explained that Issana and Lyra came up with ideas for helping Jonah have the best experience in the program. One of Jonah’s extra projects is to conduct a series of interviews with animal keepers throughout the zoo. “It’s a real opportunity for him.” Kate commends ZooCorps for meeting Jonah where he is at and for being so flexible. “Because of the ZooCorps program, Jonah is able to work towards something he’s wanted to do all of his life; to be an animal keeper.” 

Issana herself credits the entire ZooCorps community as being the Game Changers. “The teens are the ones who are so welcoming of Jonah and others who are not exactly like them. They are the ones who have taken Jonah under their wing and helped him to feel at home here, and I know it’s made a huge difference.” 

Thank you to ZooCorps, Jonah and his mom, Kate, for sharing their experience and being an inspiration for us all. Their work to be inclusive and welcoming is an exemplary model for us all.