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Youth Academy takes teens behind the scenes
Riding in city vehicles. - photo by photos by Susan Thacker/Great Bend Tribune

Great Bend youths spent most of the day Friday learning what makes the City of Great Bend tick. For the 41st Youth Academy, they visited areas seldom seen, such as the Wastewater Treatment Plant, and places they thought they knew, such as the zoo.
Youth Academy is open to any student who will be entering the seventh or eighth grade this fall, said Jefferson Davis, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer at the Great Bend Police Department. With Friday’s group of 40, Youth Academy has now graduated more than 2,000 students. Forty more will attend next week.

The students rode to the Fire Station, Brit Spaugh Park, City Hall and the Street Department in police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and other city vehicles. They had lunch with Mayor Mike Allison and other city council members at Gambinos.

Youth Academy is always hands-on, and was created with the intention of keeping kids invested in their community. So, when Davis led the group into the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo, he reminded them that not every community has a zoo.
“Many of you have been here before,” he said, promising to take them “behind the scenes. There’s a lot of work that goes into our city having this nice of a zoo.”
Zoo Director Nicole Benz and staff showed youths the kitchen where the animals’ food is prepared, and back areas of the zoo not open to the general public – including the house when Sunny, a Bengal tiger, stays when he doesn’t want to be outside. That put them within 3 feet of a chuffing tiger.
The chuff or chuffle sound made by large cats was, in this case, probably a greeting. Some people mistake the sound for growling, but it’s actually analogous to the purring of smaller cat species. However, Zookeeper Justine Doty was kept busy making sure no one made the mistake of getting too close to Sunny.
Some of the students seemed more impressed to meet Emrey,  a Great Plains rat snake that they were allowed to pet.
“This is, like, the closest I’ve ever been to a snake!” one student said.

Students finished the day with an “idea exchange” with City Administrator Howard Partington, but their involvement with the Youth Academy won’t end there. Everyone who completes the program is invited back to a reunion party at Walnut Bowl in July, and can return each year until they graduate from high school.