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The Rebels of W.I.L.D.

Zoo program uplifts the next generation

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In this day and age, a practical person must ask what the future holds. As the neoteric mainstream media depict a vivid image of worldwide calamity, hope is shelved in a far dusty corner. The United States has entered a new Dark Age that gives antagonism the limelight, inducing a sensation of little promise for a brighter, better tomorrow. But from the ashes of trending gloom, pervasive fear and indifference rises a conscientious resistance from a small group of rebels at the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens (JZG).

To be a rebel is to challenge the status quo and any outdated methodologies that hinder progress. With this in mind, JZG recently created an unprecedented program for marginalized teenagers that incorporates multifaceted training and skill development essential for any successful career endeavor.

In 2016, JZG established the Wildlife Immersion & Leadership Development, or W.I.L.D., Program. Financed by a Jacksonville Journey Efficacy Study grant—a comprehensive anti-crime initiative providing teenagers of low-income families a unique pathway to self-determination, cultural recognition and community immersion-the program reaches out to the local community. From this program, a well-trained class of brilliant students motivated by ambitious career goals and altruistic pursuits has emerged. Over the past year, W.I.L.D. has not only been recognized for its inspiring efforts, community outreach and positive youth development, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) has even bestowed the 2017 Angela Peterson Excellence in Diversity Award upon W.I.L.D. for its achievements.

To implement the idea, JZG Executive Director Tony Vecchio partnered with the Jacksonville Children's Commission (JCC)—a community organization dedicated to helping children and families in Duval County achieve new levels of educational and family-focused endeavors—which has since been combined with Jax Journey and renamed Kids Hope Alliance. Students must be between the ages of 14 and 18, and either reside in one of 10 designated ZIP codes, or attend a school or church in the area.

"In those ZIP codes are the highest crime rates, the lowest parental education attainment levels, and not a lot of youth involvement or outside programs," said W.I.L.D. Program Coordinator Chris Conner.

Interested teens living in marginalized communities and schools undergo a comprehensive application process to become W.I.L.D. student employees within the zoo's educational department. Once hired, they begin the first year in a three-year journey as stewards, as ambassadors the second and wrap up their experience in the third year as advocates. "You don't have to love animals ... you don't have to be good at public speaking. You don't have to have any other skills except be willing to try," said Conner.

After Vecchio came up with the idea for W.I.L.D., Community Education Manager Christina Dembiec made it happen. "She put it all together," said Conner.

"Christina, before recruiting me, had to work hard to get 30 people to apply for this job. This past year, just from word-of-mouth, we had 80 people apply and we were filling only 16 positions. And this year, we need about 16 more. Word-of-mouth is the best and cheapest [way to get the word out] because we are a nonprofit."

For its membership, the W.I.L.D. program seeks teenagers who would benefit the most from the venture, but a good portion of the recruitment process is the students' responsibility. "There isn't a marketing strategy," explained Conner. "It's mainly sending information to schools, guidance counselors and teachers. And, you have to be nominated [by school staff] or nominated by someone in the program."

The administrative branch provides mentorship and guidance but, thanks to the student employees, Conner says the program now practically runs itself. Students mentor new recruits as well as each other, and innovate and run the programs, having an active role in everything from paperwork to budgeting.

"They'll have these skills at 15, 16, 17, 18 ... It's just an incredible thing to set them up for success and life skills," said Conner. "You can take all the skills you've learned here and apply them to any future career."

At the zoo, students are given the opportunity to become adept at essential abilities like public speaking and communication which they then utilize in the public sphere, in community centers or other places important to them. Projects initiated by the students are based on everything they have learned. Using this approach facilitates communication, which allows for better reception and acceptance by peers, future educators or bosses in business-a quality from which most people would benefit. So while they're learning to become advocates for the environment, they're also training to become community leaders and a resource for the public. Last year, Marquese Fluellen, a second-year W.I.L.D. ambassador, helped create the project "Snack Attack," which involved outreach at schools, community centers and libraries. It was designed to educate the public about invasive animal and plant species.

For Fluellen, 18, the journey has been challenging. A self-described "shy, little, scrawny kid," he expected to be immersed in work, zoological studies and the occasional interactive animal play. He did not anticipate engaging in any public speaking or becoming a leader.

"It's a huge weight of responsibilities, but it helped me build character and skills as a person," said Fluellen. "As an ambassador, I help the stewards in leadership and conservation. I talk to them and provide them with advice. I also do certification tests and try to help build programs, so it's a major role ... but then it's, like, an amazing person blossoms into a new person. It's just amazing."

Pushing his boundaries has given Fluellen newfound confidence and earned him broader recognition. Marketing & Public Relations Specialist JJ Vitale recommended Fluellen to the North American Association of Environmental Educators' (NAAEE) 30-Under-30 program, a list of 30 people around the globe who are, according to Vitale, "changing the way, leading a new path and setting their own path in environmental education."

"The fact that they recognized Marquese is really amazing, because we're talking 26-year-old college graduates with Masters degrees. And then we have this passionate, gifted guy ... . He's truly changing things, but what also needs to change is how we talk about it and who's doing the talking," said Vitale.

W.I.L.D. Ambassador Devine Quisenberry, 18, is another student of notable repute, although initially she did not share the fondness for animals that her other colleagues had.

"I never cared about animals before I came to this job. It's kind of weird, because I work at the zoo. But being here actually opened my eyes. I like animals now and it's actually something new to me," said Quisenberry.

Though Quisenberry isn't interested in working with animals as her career, through the W.I.L.D. program, she's acquired skills, like public speaking, that will enhance her résumé and elevate her chances to be part of the environment of colleges, law schools and future employers. "To be a lawyer, you have to have good communication skills. It's something I'm not the best at, but I've been learning from this program and it has helped me a lot."

Quisenberry credits all the aspects of the JZG's W.I.L.D. project with helping her refine the leadership skills necessary to pursue her "passion for justice."

"Because I'm an introvert, I can be kind of shy. Now, I really like to push myself and get out of my comfort zone," Quisenberry said.

The program offers students experiences involving the characteristics of distinctive qualities essential for opening those doors which are generally closed to the public. Recently, Quisenberry was one of 50 local high school juniors and seniors named to the Mayor's Young Leaders Advisory Council. The council shares ideas and advises city officials on issues faced by local youth, which propagates the potential for positive change and learning opportunities concerning city government and its citizens.

In an effort to ensure its success, W.I.L.D. also collaborates with various organizations, including the National Park Service and Groundwork Jacksonville-a nonprofit committed to restoring local streams, waterways and parks.

"We partner with teams who see [the students] and see the work that they do ...," said Connor. "We partner, not just with environmentalist groups because, again, you can chain the environment to almost everything we do. From the health field to business management, we can all preserve the environment together.

"So we look for those relationships that aren't obvious. Once they get on board with environmental conservation, it's a win-win for everyone."

Engaging kids who might not otherwise have such opportunities has opened many eyes to both their potential and to the ways in which the community can uplift its own and be uplifted in return.

"It's universal, so it's almost a no-brainer. And we're almost kicking ourselves, asking why we didn't implement this much sooner," said Conner. "We want change, especially concerning the environment.

"With growth, you have those growing pains ... . What they need from us, as the older generation—the wiser, in some aspects—is just to give them a better directive."

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