By Susan Riddell
Ambre Cooper, a senior at the Kentucky School for the Blind (KSB), held out her hand, opening her fingers slowly. She was slightly hesitant, trying to make sure none of the food fell out. Walker approached her, sniffed and happily accepted the food.
Walker is a beautiful spotted Masai giraffe, and – while not knowing it – he was helping Cooper gain work experience in her effort to be college and/or career ready.
Walker and other giraffes Oliver, Crosby and Malayka reside at the Louisville Zoo. Cooper spent a day feeding them recently and helped zoo patrons feed them, too. This was part of her job.
Cooper was one of 10 students who just wrapped up a KSB summer work program at the zoo, and while Cooper spent time with the giraffes, others worked in the polar bear and gorilla areas.
These students were at the zoo to gain work experience and show they have the skills to be hired for a job.
“I want to be a veterinarian, so this is a really good opportunity for me,” Cooper said. “I had to sign up for this, fill out a résumé, get two letters of recommendation and interview. I wanted the experience with the animals, but I’m also getting information about things I need to know for later, like what will be expected of me in future jobs.”
Paula Penrod, public relations coordinator for KSB, said it’s critical for these visually impaired students to go through the interview process now so they can be proactive when seeking employment.
“The work experience is important because they learn about job expectations, and they learn how to be advocates for their own needs in the work environment,” Penrod said. “This is extremely important when students return to their own communities and seek a job; they can then say to an employer, ‘I can do this job with these modifications.’”
Melissa Sheets, director of special education for KSB and Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD), said the partnership with the zoo will be used to reinforce things students are taught at KSB, especially keys to a successful interview.
“This initiative focuses not only on their Individual Learning Plans, but also on interviewing skills and appropriate social skills in the workplace,” Sheets said. “These skills are very important for students who are blind/visually impaired. Most students know that you are to look at a person during an interview or when you are speaking to a customer, but when you do not see the interviewer or the customer, you have to be taught to look in the direction of the voice. In the work place there are discrete cues that can either make or break a blind/visually impaired student’s success. Our work program teachers teach those cues so that students can be successful in the future.”
KSB partnered with Six Flags over Kentucky Kingdom in the past, but when the amusement park closed in 2010, a new partner was needed. The Louisville Zoo agreed to step in, letting 10 students complete the two-week program.
“We’re a logical fit with a variety of options,” said Kyle Shepherd, media relations manager for the zoo. “This is a great opportunity for us and for the kids.
“We learned a lot from this partnership, and we hope to expand it a bit next year to include some other departments,” Shepherd added. “The students were great. All the departments reported that the students had a strong work ethic and were very good (at their jobs).”
Some students worked in the new polar bear Glacier Run exhibit while others did a variety of tasks in the Gorilla Forest. Students worked in the stroller rentals, the gift shop or in the SpongeBob Squarepants 4D-ride experience.
Penrod said the Office for the Blind (OFB) pays the students an hourly minimum-wage salary, and KSB is going to work with OFB to see if more students can participate in the program next summer.
“The other benefit is that these students become familiar with the Office for the Blind,” Penrod said. “This is very important because OFB provides services and supports for the adult blind/visually impaired population.”
Sheets added that it’s important for all teachers to know about the Office for the Blind and the services it provides.
“The Office for the Blind is a wonderful partner, not just for Kentucky School for the Blind, but for districts across the state,” Sheets said. “Working with students to become consumers of OFB is an integral part of the transition process.
“Teachers are integral in disseminating information to students and their parents about our program,” Sheets added. “It is because of their ability to pass information onto the students in their classrooms that KSB is able to reach students across the commonwealth.”
Kentucky School for the Blind
Paula Penrod, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 897-1583, ext. 220
Melissa Sheets, email@example.com, (502) 897-1583, ext. 244
Kyle Shepherd, Kyle.Shepherd@louisvilleky.gov, (502) 238-5331