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Open Daily, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

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Inclusion at Blank Park Zoo

Posted on 12/04/2019 at 02:02 PM by Blog Author

By Sam Collison
My job as a zoo educator is one that I never knew existed growing up. I didn’t learn of this career until senior year of college. In 2010, I was hired on Blank Park Zoo’s education team and since then have spent most of my time doing outreach education. Did you know Blank Park Zoo travels the whole state of Iowa?! In my years educating the public about animals and conservation, I visited 90 of Iowa’s 99 counties! I absolutely loved meeting so many people and seeing their excitement about animals. I met people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds and saw that so many of us find a deep, unique connection with animals. Recently my position at the zoo changed to focus on another one of my passions - inclusion. In April I started as Blank Park Zoo’s first full time Inclusion Specialist on the education team. 

Sam weighing lettuce with studentIt’s been fun and exciting to help move Blank Park Zoo toward a more welcoming and accessible space for everyone. However, the idea of inclusion is not new to BPZ. Even before hiring me as Inclusion Specialist, the zoo’s always been thinking of new ways to expand its reach. Thanks to a grant made possible by the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute and Kulture City, in 2018 BPZ staff completed inclusion training and now offer sensory bags for guests. If you have been to the zoo lately, you will also notice marked “quiet zones” and “headphone zones” to help make navigating the zoo a more positive experience for all guests. As this new position evolves, I hope to provide even more staff inclusion trainings and additional support for zoo guests.

Student and Sam working in the shopAs the zoo’s Inclusion Specialist, I’ve worked closely with education staff to reach more and different communities. A big part of this job is providing support and training to camp educators and campers during the summer months. Working closely with fellow Inclusion Specialist and veteran Special Education teacher, Katie Hoover (shout out!) my job during camp is to help make zoo camp a fun and positive experience for all campers, especially those in need extra support. Working one on one with the campers has been a great highlight of this position. In the last couple years we’ve also developed Careers Camp, a summer camp developed for students on an IEP, in the junior high age range, and for those that could benefit from social and work training experience. We work together in small groups to learn, work and have fun at the zoo!

We all know summer is a blast here at Blank Park Zoo, but the fun doesn’t end when school starts. This time of year I’m working on our Work and Learn program, a new and ever-evolving program in which students on an IEP gain job skill training here at the zoo. This program is so valuable because we have the entire school year to explore all the different careers at BPZ. We spend time in several areas - Guests Services, Education, Custodial, Horticulture, Maintenance, Animal Care, and more! Students rotate through various departments and learn job skills from BPZ's knowledgeable staff. Some students that have completed this program have gone on to independently volunteer at the zoo and in the future I’d love to see some of these students apply for seasonal positions as well.

In 2010, I applied to the zoo because I really wanted to work with animals and soon became interested in the relationship Group of students working with education animalspeople have with animals. I found that animals are truly therapeutic. They spark our curiosity, they make us feel connected to the natural world, they're comforting and they don’t judge. For a human to find connection with an animal is a powerful thing. When we feel this connection, we might start to care more about other animals and their habitats. We might want to make the world better for their species and maybe we’ll take action to do so. Conservation is about people. All people. Every age, gender, race and ability. The more welcoming and inclusive space we create at Blank Park Zoo, the more people that feel the connection, the more they care and the brighter the future for animals and people everywhere.

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