Zoo Program Helps Teens With Disabilities
TOLEDO, Ohio — Zoe Hamblin’s favorite place at the Toledo Zoo is somewhere full of her favorite hue.
“I like to go to the greenhouse because it’s really warm in there,” the 16-year-old said. “And green is my favorite color.”
The 16-year-old from Whitehouse is one of a record-breaking 46 teenagers with varying disabilities participating this year in the zoo’s Advocates for Disabilities and Partners Team, a division within the Zoo Teens volunteer program. ADaPT pairs individuals with disabilities, both physical and intellectual, with other Zoo Teen members as they complete volunteer tasks together.
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“The program has grown over the years, in part driven by parents,” said Bill Davis, the zoo’s director of volunteers. “It’s always a challenge to find meaningful, rich and valuable life experiences when there are obstacles.”
It was a mother calling on behalf of her son with autism in 2008 who prompted the idea. The teen had interviewed for the broader volunteer program, but wasn’t selected because staff did not believe they could accommodate his needs.
“His mom called shortly after the interview and she was very nice about it,” Davis said. “Rather than being angry her son got turned away, she started to help us understand how we could provide support for him.”
The next year, that teen and a second with a disability were the first to be taken on board in the pilot program. This year, 36 ADaPT participants, called advocates, are paired one-on-one with another teen, called a peer-support partner, while they volunteer. The remaining 10 advocates in the program don’t need constant direct supervision, but are monitored by partners who occasionally check with them.
In June alone, ADaPT participants have contributed more than 360 volunteer hours.
“They do everything that the other zoo teens are able to do,” said Kevin Fong, the volunteer accessibility supervisor. “They are advocates for their own disability. They are out there showing that they have the ability to do everything.”
Hamblin likes it so much, she tallied 30 volunteer hours in only two weeks since her first day June 4. Visitors often encounter her telling people entering the tropical greenhouse at the ProMedica Museum of Natural History to watch their step and look out for animals that may be on the path.
“I’m so happy about it,” she said. “I love it.”
ADaPT receives funding from several sources, including the Lucas County Board of Developmental Disabilities. The number of advocates accepted each year depends on the resources and peer-support partners or staff available, and the zoo can’t accommodate every individual who applies.
“We don’t want to turn people away, but sometimes the needs may outstrip our capacities,” Davis said.
Participants identify and work on goals each year, which could be long-term or short-term — such as communication, social skills, friendships or developing greater independence, Fong said.
Teen partners undergo training similar to what zoo staff members take, teaching them how to recognize advocates’ needs and assist them. The zoo also provides sensory kits with items that help teens fulfill those needs as they volunteer.
Clara Burkin, 16, of Perrysburg, has been in the program since 2019 as a partner.
“I enjoy the partnership with the other teen,” she said. “They’re some of the best people I know. It’s always fun to be out there with another person.”
Zoo officials say the community response to ADaPT teens as visitors meet them has been very favorable overall. It’s also important for guests who may have disabilities themselves to see people like them among the zoo’s volunteers.
“It is always a pretty positive response that I receive,” Burkin said. “It always leaves me happy.”
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