Spending your days at Brookfield Zoo would be a dream job for many teens, but for developmentally disabled high school kids, it’s a dream come true. Brookfield Zoo’s “Good Works” program employs six developmentally disabled high school volunteer teens from Riverside-Brookfield High School, Lyons Township High School and Oak Park and River Forest High School, who learn job skills working in the Hamil Family Play Zoo.
“They start with a job coach or Service Coordinator [from their high school] who walks them through the steps, but by the end of the semester, they’re working independently. They know their responsibilities and they’re reporting on time, filling out time sheets, all the things that are required when you have a real job,” says Conservation Leadership Program Supervisor Deb Kutska. Supportive staff and volunteers in the Play Zoo provide an encouraging environment. Some teens even practice motor skills or memory activities, and learn confidence and public speaking with guidance from high school staff and zoo helpers.
“The students are very busy interacting with families at the Play Zoo.,” says Kutska.
Teens, like Tyler from Riverside-Brookfield, learn to work in the Play Zoo, keeping the exhibit and activity stations prepared for visiting families. In the interactive Play Zoo, children from infants to 10-year-olds can explore, touch and build. Tyler’s activities include cutting out shapes for craft activities, refreshing the face-painting stations with clean sponges, paints and brushes. Teen volunteers like Tyler also hang up and organize costumes in the children’s dress up areas Ð like the “veterinarian” station where children try on lab-coats and stethoscopes.
And teens don’t just work behind the scenes. “They’re encouraged to say ‘hi’ and help with customer service. It’s great job skills training for later in life,” says Kutska.
The program began seven and a half years ago, although only sixÐto-eight students participate each session. Some volunteers have gone on to work in paid positions at the zoo. The zoo also runs a similar program for disabled adults called “Bridges.”
On April 14, this year’s crop of volunteers gathered for a recognition luncheon at the zoo, including an “animal encounter,” where they got to interact with zoo animals, such as hamsters.
But otherwise, the volunteers do not work with the animals, “No volunteers clean up after animals. Those positions are very coveted union jobs,” says Kutska.