I just finished breakfast (homemade blueberry waffles, sausage and fresh strawberries) with 25 young people who are going to make a difference and 5 young people that already do. It is the morning of our 2010 Junior Keeper Retreat. Our retreat is part bootcamp, part bonding experience and part Wow! factor for the 25 newest recruits to our youth volunteer program.
We choose 25 young people from a pool of applicants of over 100 every spring to be Junior Keepers, an Audubon Zoo youth volunteer program for over 20 years. These 7th, 8th and 9th graders will spend over 160 hours this summer training on conservation issues, animal handling, public presentations, and much more. In the Fall they will join the ranks of the youth volunteers who present animals and education programs to our guests at all the education encounter areas.
These 25 teenagers came here yesterday to spend the night at the Zoo and get to know one another and the education and volunteer staff they will be working with. They came in quietly and a bit afraid. They had a schedule of rotations that included animal origami, a sea lion demonstration and ice breaking games.
In the beginning they didn’t talk much except to remind us that is it was hot. They started to feel more comfortable with us and then were a lot more vocal about how hot they were. This is where the boot camp philosophy had to kick in. Yes, we know it’s hot, keep walking. It’s a Zoo, it’s southern Louisiana, we work outside. If you can’t take the heat kids, you can’t be a zoo volunteer. (You can be an Aquakid or Junior Entomologist though, they have air conditioning). We present animals and talk about it even when the sweat gets in our eyes.
Then came the Wow! factor-we brought out our biggest pythons and largest birds of prey. They got to touch and they were impressed. These are the animals they hope to attain handling abilities on. These advanced animals are the goals of all youth volunteers.
Finally the bonding. There was chatting until 2am. New friends sat next to each other at breakfast. They talked about the staff and knew everyone by name. This was a different group of people than the 25 quiet strangers dropped off yesterday morning.
Welcome new recruits. You are going to have a great experience, you are going to make a difference and yes, you are going to be hot. You'll get used to it.