Around Great Bend, young people have been spotted doing volunteer work and Acts of Random Kindness. In fact, these youths are part of John Zimmerman’s A.R.K. Foundation, a program he created to build character, teach respect and make the world a bit better for everyone.
Five to 10 kids work with him routinely at Brit Spaugh Zoo, where Zimmerman is a zookeeper. On Tuesday, Nate Larkin, Chris Reed and Payten Levingston spent time cleaning animals cages while Megan Dunn worked with Zoo Curator Nicole Benz on raptor rehabilitation.
“We’re waiting on an injured bird that’s coming in,” Dunn said. “We think it’s a eagle.”
Everything is done under supervision and at no danger to the participants, Zimmerman said, explaining the double-lock system that separates humans from animals, even when the humans are working in areas not usually open to the public. The boys said they’d be sweeping out empty cages and hosing them down. “Yesterday we sanitized,” Reed said. They also set out food and water for the animals.
They were cleaning the grivet monkey’s enclosure on Tuesday. It was hot work, but not as bad as cleaning up after the grizzly bears, who leave malodorous scat. Even so, the youths said they enjoy the work, and several of them think they’d like to become zookeepers.
With only three full-time zookeepers on staff, volunteers are a big help, Zimmerman said. Other volunteers are also accepted from the community, under Benz’s direction. On Tuesday she worked with a crew from Upward Bound.
Zoo Director Scott Gregory said the help is appreciated. “John does a fabulous job — and the kids do a fantastic job,” he said.
There are several other areas where the youth help at the zoo, but that is only one of 13 A.R.K. programs. Zimmerman also has youth working at Veterans Memorial Park, ringing bells for the Salvation Army or learning how to take responsibility for chores at home. Some things they do are just for fun, like playing checkers or chess. He mentors some young people and helps those who are “problem” kids work on relationships. A former foster parent, Zimmerman tries to work with foster children and those needing therapeutical stimulation. Each team works with a supervisor.
“Basically, the kids run the program, to an extent. I’m not a counselor, not a therapist. I first thought of (A.R.K.) when I started working with foster kids,” he said.
Started in 2011, the A.R.K. Foundation is not yet recognized as a non-profit organization, but that is also one of Zimmerman’s goals.
“The whole idea behind it is having the kids of today making the community better for the kids of tomorrow,” he said. “There are good days and bad days, but even on the worst of days, I go home with a smile.”
The A.R.K. Foundation has one monthly program at Brit Spaugh Zoo that is open to the public. Adults and children with adult supervision can spend a morning making enrichment items that the zookeepers can use all month. Gregory explained that enrichment items are things placed in the animals’ enclosures to make their lives more meaningful and interesting. Something new is used every day. “Sometimes it will be a new scent; sometimes it will be a puzzle for the animals to figure out.”
This program meets from 8 a.m. to noon on the second or third Saturday of the month. For more information call the zoo office, 620-793-4226, or the A.R.K. Foundation, 620-352-1322.