Zoo volunteer connects kids to nature

Frack has devoted one day monthly for five years

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By NICK MORONI

Snakes, cockroaches and bananas: all in a day's work for Forest Parker Michelle Frack, whose monthly volunteer work at Brookfield Zoo encompasses all of these elements.

For the last five years she has volunteered at least one day out of the month at the Hamill Family Play Zoo, an interactive indoor space where kids and families try their hands at botany in the greenhouse, hang out at the lemurs' habitat, or visit a vet clinic where a real-life veterinarian might demonstrate how to listen to a pooch's heartbeat.

"No day is exactly the same," Frack said. "One Saturday I might be on ladybug detail; another day I might be handling the corn snake; another week I might be making a cardboard city in the ... workshop."

On summer weekends zoo-goers and Hamill's staff, and/or volunteers like Frack, release thousands of ladybugs outside. The red corn snake, native to Mexico and the southern United States, might be found resting in Frack's hands as she discusses its habitat with visitors. She might also be found in an art room where kids have free reign to create projects using mostly recycled materials.

She talked about gathering harvested bananas and papayas with the children and then parading them (literally) in a ceremonial procession through the zoo. The parade route takes Frack and her little followers to the primate house where the food is left for zoo-keepers to feed to the animals.

"It's an environment that really fosters a connection with children and nature," said Frack, who has had an affinity with nature and Brookfield Zoo since she was a small child.

"I distinctly remember taking zoo classes [as a child]," Frack said, with jovial embarrassment. "I would learn about different animals and different eco-systems, and I learned that my backyard was a nice piece of nature that I could explore; it was just as exciting as going to the savannah or the rain forest."

Frack is pursuing a master's degree in urban ecology at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and hopes to teach college science one day. She chose the field because of her strong interest in nature's response to urbanization.

"So often people go into ecology because they want to go to an exotic place. ... I'm very drawn to the nature that is in our own built-up spaces," she said. "It's so easy to forget that we still have a connection to nature."

Frack also volunteers with After School Matters - a Chicago nonprofit that provides various activities for underserved city teens - and she encourages the Chicago Public Schools students she mentors to think about nature's presence in a major city like Chicago.

The Chicago Zoological Society - the private nonprofit that operates Brookfield Zoo - recognized Frack's five years of service by presenting her an award at its annual volunteer-recognition dinner earlier this month.

"It was lovely," Frack said, adding that roughly 600 people attended and some got to pet Australian wombats - small, furry herbivores that resemble rabbits - which were brought along by zookeepers.

Hamill is celebrating its 10th year of operation at Brookfield Zoo and Jill Damato Westhus, a Hamill supervisor, said 23 of the 60 current volunteers have been there since the space's inception.

Frack said she intends to continue indefinitely.

"I credit the zoo for connecting me to the natural world when I was a child and as an adult I'm lucky to have the opportunity to study the natural world in an urban setting and I believe it's one of my responsibilities to support the zoo's continued efforts to connect children to nature," she said.

"I'm not sure I would have gone to science if it wasn't for memories like that [at the zoo]," she added, noting that she wants to continue working with children after she graduates.

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