Texas Zoo provides disabled students a chance to learn life skills

Nov. 29, 2011 at 5:29 a.m.

Elizabeth Aguilar is a special needs student enrolled in a Victoria school district program that helps students develop work skills. Elizabeth spends several hours each week at the Texas Zoo, working with a staff member who mentors her.

Elizabeth Aguilar is a special needs student enrolled in a Victoria school district program that helps students develop work skills. Elizabeth spends several hours each week at the Texas Zoo, working with a staff member who mentors her.

Against the gloomy backdrop of rainy weather on Tuesday, Lauren Freeman's bright smile shone like a ray of sunshine as she greeted a group of mentally ill people entering the Texas Zoo's education building.

Freeman is a participant in the Victoria school district's Academics For Life Program.

The mentally ill guests, all of whom were patients of Gulf Bend Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, were there to participate in an educational Zoosday event.

"Hi. How are y'all doing?" Freeman asked the guests. "We're going to learn about frogs."

As they took their seats, Freeman proceeded to assist Alyssa Conrad, the Zoosday presenter, by handing out paper plates and crayons in preparation for a dual science lesson and arts and crafts activity about amphibians.

Freeman and her Victoria West High School classmates have spent their Tuesdays this semester working at the zoo to gain job skills that may serve them well after graduation.

A districtwide program, AFL is designed to provide high school students who are high-functioning despite disabilities including autism with a curriculum designed to integrate academic courses with life prep skills and career prep activities.

About 22 students from Victoria East and West high schools are currently participating in the career prep part of the program.

Like internships, the career prep activities place students in real-life work scenarios to learn a career skill.

The high school students rotate each semester among the Texas Zoo, Hobby Lobby, Walgreens, Homewood Residence and the school district's Day Care center.

This is the zoo's first year to participate in the program.

"I wanted to give back to the community," said Texas Zoo Executive Director Andrea Blomberg, about her decision to partner with the AFL program. "We're nonprofit, and we are usually asking for assistance. This was a small way for us to give back."

While at Homewood, participating students focus on janitorial services, and at Hobby Lobby, the students learn more about shelving and unloading crates.

At the zoo, however, AFL teacher Rebecca Stanley said she hopes students will learn more about animals, animal maintenance and customer service in preparation for a possible career at a veterinarian's office or kennel.

"They are excited to come every Tuesday, and they talk about it all week long," said Stanley. "Hopefully, we will teach them the skills they need to go into that job and keep working."

In addition to assisting zoo staff with educational activities, the students also assist with cleaning the animals' exhibits.

So far, students have made a lasting impression on zoo staff.

"She (Freeman) thinks about a lot of things I wouldn't think about mentioning. She looks at things differently," said Conrad, an education assistant at the zoo. "She's a hard worker. She keeps me on my toes."

The experience has seemingly been equally enjoyable for the students.

"I like working with animals. They are so friendly, and they don't kick," said Freeman, who toyed with the Tweety Bird lanyard around her neck as she described her experience in the petting zoo. "You get to see all the animals and help the kids learn things."

Meanwhile, Travis Gasch, 18, said he enjoys learning animal facts and working with lemurs.

"They are native in the islands off the East Coast of Africa," he said. "They make a meow noise for communication and to call for mates."

Victoria West senior Elizabeth Aguilar is convinced that she has found her future career.

"I want to go to college and be a veterinarian," Aguilar said.

The opportunity for the students to get hands-on experience accomplishes teaching tasks that cannot be taught solely in the classroom, Stanley said.

"I can talk to them all day, and they'll look at me silly, but if I actually let them do it, they'll learn," Stanley said. "They are perfectionists almost sometimes. People have a tendency to think they are going to be klutzy, but they are usually very meticulous about what they are doing and careful about their surroundings."

Cathy Ray, AFL program director, said she hopes to partner with more businesses in the future.

"It takes people like (Blomberg) to open up their doors and provide these students with job training skills," Ray said. "That's where it has to start."



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