Arizona Giving and Leading: Phoenix Zoo Teens

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A program at the Phoenix Zoo is helping to keep children interested and involved in nature and animals. Every year, Zoo Teens welcomes a group of 14-17 year old volunteers who learn from animal keepers and give back by interacting with zoo guests.

Ted Simons: Time now to look behind the scenes at the Phoenix Zoo. That's where producer Christina Estes and photographer Steve Aron recently learned about a program that pairs teenagers with animals.

Anila Tynan: I really love the zoo. I have been here since I was little. And I love coming and seeing all the animals.

Christina Estes: These days, Anila Tynan does a lot more than just see the animals.

Anila Tynan: So what we do in the morning is we might come in, and you are going to get all the poop out of the shavings and out of their stall.

Christina Estes: Anila is among more than 100 teens who volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo.

Anila Tynan: It's really great to come on the weekends, to leave behind like school and the house and get here and just have fun with friends.

Robin Wilson: Kind of view the zoo teen program as a bridging program where they can bridge through their teen years into their adult life.

Christina Estes: Robin Wilson runs the program.

Robin Wilson: Do you guys have any thoughts on that table and how we can make that better?

Christina Estes: Each volunteer begins as either a trail teen where they present animal artifacts and share information with guests --

Video: Yeah, they can run fast. Our goats are kind of lazy.

Christina Estes: -- or they can start as a farm teen. Which involves lot of cleaning. As a second year volunteer, Anila was able to become an equine teen.

Anila Tynan: I really have a passion for horses. I really like working with them. I really like being around them. And also it's a great stepping stone to get to even higher levels of the zoo teen program like the animal care center which is where you get to work alongside -- hi, pretty girl - alongside the veterinarians.

Christian Topete: I haven't picked up poop at all. Believe it or not.

Christina Estes: Instead Christian Topete picks up a lot of worms. He volunteers in the kitchen where they scoop more than 44,000 meal worms every month.

Christian Topete: And our bird ones gets two cups of worms. Probably the most amount that we distribute.

Christina Estes: As a member of the nutritional services team Christian helps prepare 500 diets for 1400 animals.

Christian Topete: So this is my third year I was able to apply for this and I did an interview and it scared me. I was freaking out the whole time. But I finally made it. I got the call and they told me that they were going to accept me into the program. And I felt like I won the lottery, honestly.

Christina Estes: But this lottery winner still had to prove himself by taking a test on nutrition, personal hygiene and food safety.

Christian Topete: So once I passed that, they asked me, you know, what's your experience knives? And at time I had no experience with knives at all.

Christina Estes: Look at him now. Besides mastering knives, brooms and rakes, zoo teens are exposed to networking, meetings and even hiring decisions.

Anila Tynan: I ran an interview alongside my supervisors and I got to see what it's like on the other side of the table.

Robin Wilson: That's another huge key element to the zoo teen programs. I encourage the kids to develop relationships not just with myself but with the other staff members here at the Phoenix Zoo so that they can get those letters of recommendation or reference that they can have doors open for them.

Christina Estes: A whole world has opened for Christian since he took the first step as a 14-year-old trail teen.

Christian Topete: It helped me grow as a person because I was really shy talking to people. And I was not a good public speaker whatsoever. So I mean just fighting to get words out was really hard for me and now I can talk to any guest that comes up to me and that helped me.

Christina Estes: Not every teen will spend their lives working at a zoo. [Laughter] But every one will remember their time as a zoo teen.

Ted Simons: The program is open to students 14 to 17 years of age. Applications are accepted from March through May. You can find out more at Phoenixzoo.org. Friday on "Arizona Horizon" it's a Journalists' Roundtable. We will discuss a lawsuit targeting the state's Foster care system. And we will look at a bill that bans texting while driving. That's Friday on the Journalists' Roundtable.

That is it Fort now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of 8, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

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