Wild Wire

January 2017

W.I.L.D. (Wildlife Immersion and Leadership Development) launched at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2016 to provide teens from historically under-supported communities with leadership training and employment opportunities that make a real, lasting impact. Developed in response to the Mayor’s Jacksonville Journey initiative, it is modeled on programs our Executive Director, Tony Vecchio, has implemented at other zoos. We began with 10 W.I.L.D. Stewards, and will grow by 10 more this year. 

The teens work together to learn about animals at the Zoo and how to best teach others about them. As employees in the Zoo’s Education department, they take on the roles of informal educators, zookeepers, public speakers, and Zoo representatives. Teens participate in training over the summer to become familiar with the Zoo’s education animals and techniques for leading presentations, as well as seminars on subjects like interviewing, resume building, and leadership. During the school year, Stewards take the front end on developing and presenting W.I.L.D. Outreach Programs in their communities. They book, create, and present programs. They also attend area festivals as Zoo representatives, and participate in team-building activities.

Under the guidance of W.I.L.D. coordinator Chris Conner, teens practice leadership development through a range of projects and learning opportunities. Stewards might spend a day helping the Zoo’s horticulture department eradicate invasive plant species at the beach, or staff an educational table at Global Tiger Day to interact with guests, or visit the St. Augustine Alligator Farm to learn from other educators in action. Chris emphasizes that the teens come from “unsupported” communities—the students are driven and passionate, but have not yet had the support they need to reach their full potential. He strives to be a boss, mentor, and friend who can make this difference in their lives. Stewards continue in the program for up to three years, and each year help choose the incoming class. Senior Stewards serve as program mentors for new teens.

Stewards are able to make an impact on all ages by presenting Outreach Programs in their communities. Through sharing their knowledge and experiences, they spread the message of the Zoo as a community asset, a place for job opportunities, and an organization that can provide something for everyone in our community. The teens express a continuous desire to be involved as ambassadors of the Zoo, and are already actively recruiting for the next class. We have received numerous comments from the public praising the Stewards for their passion and excellence.

Within the Stewards’ daily lives, they report the personal impacts the program has provided: reduced  anxiety, increased confidence in public speaking, and increased ability to work with new people. They  report speaking more in school, an easier time making new friends, and being more comfortable  speaking on a wide variety of subjects.

Our program is holistic in its approach. Our paid jobs at the Zoo are very different from the traditional opportunities available to teens. Their work environment is dynamic, engaging, and constantly  changing. Chris is not just their boss, he is their friend and mentor. He has an open-door office policy,  and is available for homework help, family issues, or any conversations the teens might wish to have.  We’ve intentionally kept the program small so we can focus on each individual’s growth, with the goal of  creating leaders. Teens develop skills they can use to pursue their passions in whatever their future  career may be. Chris has ambitious goals of not just a 100% high school graduation rate and 100% college admission rate, but a 100% paid college admission rate through scholarships for the teens.


Keep reading for personal statements from three teens in the program:

Safiyyah – When someone asks me about the program and what I do at the zoo, I always start with I have the best job because I work with my friends. Gaining new friends is the one of the most important things the W.I.L.D. Program has given me. I enjoy meeting new people who have the same interests as me, but not the same experiences. It was great to see that I was chosen to be in this program with 9 other people very different from myself, but we all shared one common thing which was our enthusiasm for learning… The other stewards have become my friends and what I like most is that some people may think that you will naturally become friends with someone you work with so closely, but that’s not always true. I like this program and consider them my true friends, because we learn from each other, watch each other grow and fail and are there to cheer each other on when we make mistakes… I can even see some of the stewards being in my life and on my team for a long time to come.

Damon – When I first started this program, I did not know exactly what to expect… for me the thought of being in the room filled with strangers was a little scary. The first week, I am pretty sure the other stewards thought that I really couldn’t talk. Even though I am on the varsity football team, help coach the JV team, and in a couple of honor societies and clubs, I am not a very social person. I am an introvert and I know it. However, this program with the assistance of Mr. Chris and Mrs. Christina, have honestly pushed my comfort zone further away… Getting used to the other stewards was easy, but for me, it was what I have noticed outside of work and this program. I am definitely more sociable in my life. I talk to more people about more stuff. Most of the time, that stuff isn’t animal or work related, but I know the skill to be able to has come from my time in this program. I can walk into the room or group of people and feel more comfortable.

Daniel – W.I.L.D. program has done a lot of things for me… but I would say the main things the W.I.L.D Program has done for me is given me valuable experiences that I can learn from and take with me further in life. As well as leadership skills to help me further in the military in my hopes of becoming an Officer in the military.

*An updated fun fact, Safiyyah, Damon and Daniel have all been accepted to one or all of their top 5 colleges!

Interested in supporting the W.I.L.D. program? Email Melissa at gillelandm@jacksonvillezoo.org to find out more.