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I was so impressed by an article I read a couple of weeks ago about the volunteer program at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana that I just had to call and speak to the volunteer manager, Kathy Terlizzi because something about the article’s description of the program conveyed a specialness about volunteering. Kathy graciously agreed to let me write about our conversation.
I felt so comfortable speaking to her from her first bubbly hello that I imagined all the volunteers, both existing and perspective who are captivated by her passion and dedication. Her program truly is inspirational.
Kathy has been the zoo’s volunteer manager since August 2009 and was a volunteer at the zoo before joining the staff. “I made changes based on my experiences as a volunteer,” she told me. When she took over, the initial training program for new volunteers occurred either at the end of the season or at the beginning which meant some volunteers had to wait before utilizing their new skills and enthusiasm. Also, the training was a comprehensive training which meant that volunteers, regardless of their comfort level were expected to “get out and do what they were trained for”. Many volunteers, Kathy found, were overwhelmed with the comprehensive training and since there was no practical application (mentoring) along with training, the volunteers were not prepared to roll up their sleeves and jump in to some of the more complicated tasks.
So, Kathy, seeing volunteers repeatedly become overwhelmed, initiated a stair step training broken into three parts.
Part one is the basic training for all adult volunteers. This is the ground floor training and volunteers are asked to commit to 18 shift hours before moving up to the next level. Volunteers at the zoo can sign up for shifts online. (the zoo utilizes Volgistics for volunteer management).
Part two is the Ambassador training which helps volunteers prepare to interact and speak to the general public.
Part three is the docent training which helps volunteers become comfortable in crowd situations and with handling zoo education animals during animal demonstrations and off site programs for zoo guests.
This stair step method allows volunteers to take their volunteer training in stages and encourages them to find their comfort level of participation. The more advanced classes may be smaller than the initial basic training, but it ensures that volunteers find their own path and don’t feel pushed into something they are not ready to do. Some volunteers don’t wish to advance while others find that they want to move up. “I believe that volunteers should bloom where they’re planted,” Kathy said.
I heard real pride and enthusiasm when Kathy spoke about her teen leadership program which is set to kick off in June and July. Daily, 30-40 adult volunteers work in the zoo, but during the summer program an additional 40 teens who volunteer during two-week sessions are incorporated. They too, sign up for shifts online after going through a special teen orientation.
Teens 13-17 apply for the two-week sessions and the 172 slots are coveted by 250 applicants. Returning teens account for about 99 slots, so the rest are new teens who go through the new application process which includes filling out an online application, answering an essay question and providing a letter of recommendation.
After the applications are processed and the teens selected comes the logistical nightmare of slotting teens into the program. Kathy spends the entire month of March working on the two-week sessions. Emails and phone calls from interested teens takes over her days as she slots returning teens first and then the new teens are inserted based on gender, age and availability to provide balance. It is an ever evolving schedule as teens find conflicts with their other activities and family obligations.
But, instead of this monumental task seeming a burden for Kathy, she is stoked about the teen program, and told me that at first, she was intimidated working with teens because of all the negative stereotypes she’d heard about young people. But she found that the teens she works with are wonderful, responsible volunteers. She prides herself as an up front person and speaks to them frankly about dress codes, expectations and sensitive subjects like drugs and weapons. The teens are expected to be professional in their participation, especially in regard to zoo guests. In return, the teens take their responsibilities very seriously and frankly, Kathy says, they “have a lot to say.” Kathy believes in speaking to the teens directly, (although the program is transparent and openly invites parental and guardian involvement) and finds that the teens really step up when given the chance to embrace responsibility.
One day she discovered some older photographs of teen volunteers doing the same animal handling as the adults, something the zoo had gotten away from over the years, so she advocated a return to letting teens have equal volunteer responsibility. The parents were open to it, she says, mainly because they knew their children were safe within the zoo framework.
So two years ago, she implemented a two-hour pilot training and 66 teens signed up. At first the teens began with level one animals, bunnies and guinea pigs, but now the teens are handling snakes and tortoises. When the pilot program began, Kathy let the teens know that they were in part responsible for the success of the program and the teens immediately stepped up and showed the professionalism necessary for the program to thrive.
Another success Kathy talked about was increasing the trust level between staff and volunteers. It was a goal she had when she first started and so she spent the first year building a rapport with staff. “I told them (staff) that volunteers will do anything as long as it benefits the zoo. They won’t, however wash your car.” At first the zoo keepers were reluctant, so Kathy took a proactive approach.
She saw that the giraffe keepers had to prepare food daily for the giraffe puzzle feeders (a hanging feeder with holes that let the food stick out-these feeders simulate the natural foraging of giraffes) and offered to ask volunteers to do the preparation, thus giving the keepers more time to focus on other more pressing tasks. At first the keepers wondered why any volunteer would be willing to do that job, but within five hours after posting the job online, the shifts were all filled. Now volunteers sign up for 2 hour shifts to prepare the giraffe puzzle feeder food.
Another proactive instance came when the aquarium manager mused about organizing ph data he had been collecting so Kathy offered him a volunteer who was computer savvy in spreadsheets.
At first he reluctantly turned over a month’s worth of data but when he received his data back in a neatly organized spreadsheet, he quickly turned over much more information to the volunteers.
That’s how trust is built. Kathy also found a way to incorporate seamstresses into the zoo’s programs. These volunteers make costumes for zoo presentations and also cold weather quilts for the education animal carriers. She also utilizes Spanish-speaking volunteers to help translate signage.
Kathy has found a great way to work with groups. She says that the community wants to be involved in zoo volunteering so she offers the community the opportunity to participate in Annual Enrichment Workshops (run by a volunteer and his family) where they can do meaningful crafts like make fishcicles or paper mache animals in bulk. These items are requested by keepers and ultimately given to exhibit animals as enrichment. She also utilizes corporate volunteer groups for some of the zoo’s larger events throughout the year.
But when I asked for Kathy’s advice to new volunteer managers, she grew wistful, “I would tell them to get ready for the ride for it’s all encompassing. It’s fun and rewarding but also sometimes sad because you have this personal rapport with the volunteers and you get involved with their lives.” She also would like a new manager to know that volunteer management is not a 9-5 job, as there are weeknight trainings and weekends spent recruiting or trouble shooting. She says, “there’s one of me and 450 volunteers. And they all want and deserve some of my time. That’s why my job is social.”
She told me that she had been a manager for many years before working at the zoo and it opened her eyes when she took a personality quiz and found out how high she scored on interacting with people. Volunteer management has fit that bill. Kathy spoke glowingly of being able to put a volunteer in a place where they can grow. Whether it’s a shy, sensitive teen or a senior who is feeling unfulfilled, she derives tremendous satisfaction in seeing volunteers bloom.
As you can imagine, Kathy is comfortable talking with anyone. She says, “I kid that I need one of those take a number systems outside my door. My office is right across from the volunteer room. Everyone talks to me, volunteers, staff, guests, even family and friends. If I wear my zoo t-shirt to the store, the clerk wants to talk to me about the zoo. So I take the opportunity to ask, how about volunteering for us?”
For me, it was easy to see why this volunteer program succeeds. Kathy Terlizzi, the volunteer manager, is both passionate and practical. I heard in her voice that she wants every volunteer to succeed, to have a meaningful experience, and to be part of something in which they can take great pride. It’s no wonder the Fort Wayne Children’s zoo is the number one attraction in all of Indiana. This zoo and volunteer program is a success story we can all learn from. I know I’ve taken away these principles from my conversation with Kathy:
1. Be proactive with staff-analyze their needs and offer volunteer help whenever possible-build that trust that volunteers can help and free up staff to do other pressing matters.
2. Invest time and thought into your training program-use levels to encourage volunteers to find their niche and don’t overwhelm them with all training at once, instead encourage them to take training in steps. Make sure that the volunteer opportunities are meaningful work.
3. Model professionalism and responsibility, especially to teens and they will step up to the challenge.
4. Be prepared to give your time and attention to every volunteer.
5. Create new opportunities whenever possible to expand your volunteer reach.
6. Take pride in your work. It’s infectious.
Thank you so much to Kathy Terlizzi for allowing me a glimpse into this very special volunteer program. It is volunteer managers like Kathy who take volunteering to the next level through dedication and a willingness to believe in volunteers.