Q&A with Terri Smith, Volunteer Coordinator of the Philadelphia ZooBy Dan Eldridge |
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Thirty-eight year old Terri Smith has spent the last five years working as the volunteer coordinator of the Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest in the country. When she’s not busy working — or networking with other zoo professionals and volunteer organizers — she can be found at home with her boyfriend, caring for their five pets. Terri’s lifelong dream involved volunteering at the Philadelphia Zoo, so it is quite befitting that she would find her dream job leading their volunteer recruitment efforts.
We recently spoke with Terri about her professional background and her current job responsibilities, and she was happy to share some secrets of the zoo’s successful and expansive volunteer efforts.
The bottom line: The sheer number, dedication and loyalty of the zoo’s family of volunteers — they host over 450 permanent volunteers and roughly 1,200 over the course of a year — is quite a feat.
To start off, can you tell me a little about yourself and your career — and in particular, how you came to lead the zoo’s volunteer program?
That’s a bit complicated of a question, because my career path was kind of windy and twisty. It goes back to school when I studied biology — animal behavior and environmental issues. I [also] started the environmental club at my high school. At that point, I realized I wanted to work at the zoo one day. And I grew up in South Jersey, so this is my zoo.
Did you continue studying that sort of thing in college?
Well, I’ve wanted to work here for quite some time, but I didn’t know exactly in what capacity. I got my degree from Rutgers in environmental studies — with a focus on education — but it took me a while to manage to make my way into the zoo. I got an MBA in nonprofit management along the way from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Then I basically stalked the zoo’s website until I saw this job posting. And when I saw it, I said, “That’s the job I’ve been looking for; that’s the job I want!”
What was it about the job posting that made you want it so badly?
If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wanted to be a volunteer at the zoo. So it was a great way to blend my passion for the zoo, as well as what I’d really grown increasingly interested in, which was volunteerism and working with people.
Had you ever volunteered at a zoo before, or with animals in any capacity?
Actually, no. I’d been an adoptive parent: I’d financially adopted a giraffe from the zoo program when I was in Cleveland. But I’d always worked two or three jobs at a time, and I just never really had the time to volunteer. I do live with four cats and a dog, though!
Could you describe what the Philadelphia Zoo’s volunteer program is like, and what kind of background your volunteers tend to have?
Sure. A lot of people don’t realize this, but our volunteers are primarily focused on teaching guests about animals and animal behavior, and about our conservation efforts. We have about 450 volunteers that are with us in a year-round capacity, and they range in age from 14 to 93. We also utilize about 175 college-age interns, and other career-changers who are looking to make a life out of working at the zoo.
Do you really have that many?
Yes, and that doesn’t include the people who come out for one-day, or an event opportunity. And we also have corporate groups and college groups that just come out for a day, and volunteer in a steward capacity. That probably brings us to about 1,200 volunteers over the course of a year.
Could you get a bit more into the specifics of what it is all of these volunteers do?
Most of our year-round volunteers are based in our education department and are trained to teach people about the animals, so they’re the people you meet at the exhibits. We also have a camera club of around forty to fifty photographers who help us by contributing photos that we use in our marketing efforts. They save us what could be tens of thousands of dollars a year by providing us with images of our own animals.
I have to say that I’m a bit surprised so many of your volunteers teach and inform guests at the zoo, since that sounds a lot like public speaking. I’m sure you know that’s a very common fear.
Well … that bring us to what happens when [potential volunteers] call: We always explain to them what it is our volunteers do, and the training they go through. A lot of people don’t realize there’s an application process and an interview, and that not everyone who submits an application will be asked to volunteer.
What’s the application process like? And what kinds of things do you look for in a potential volunteer?
That’s something I’ve continued to refine over the years. We ask questions like, “Why do you want to volunteer at the zoo? How do you think the role of a volunteer can help the zoo? How do you think you, as a volunteer, can help fulfill the zoo’s mission of connecting families and wildlife? So in the [volunteer] application, we’re setting the tone of what our volunteers do. [Volunteers] have to apply to a specific program, and that determines what the next step in the application process is.
And what are those next steps? Does the zoo provide a lot of training for volunteers, or do you select people who already have the right skills and background?
We have our docent program, which is our largest program, with about 200 volunteers. And the [current] volunteers actually do the one-on-one interviews for those positions. Those selected then go through a 20-week training course before they officially become a docent, so it’s pretty intense. They’ll then go on to work exhibits, give tours, and a small number also do administrative work. We also do a lot of group interviews that we refer to as ‘auditions.’ We do this for our teen program, and we have the teens, who we call Junior Ambassadors, give brief presentations to gauge their public speaking skills, and to see who’ll be a good fit.
How exactly are the docents different from other volunteers?
Docents are stationed at exhibits, just like our volunteer ambassadors, but they’re also qualified to give tours.
With so many volunteers and programs, you must get a ton of inquiries and applications. How do you manage all of this?
I have to say, I’ve been working really hard to put more information on our website, so the number of calls and emails I receive has dramatically dropped since I started five years ago. Still, in any given week, I’m probably fielding at least 25 inquiries.
Do you happen to know if zoos in other cities have such robust volunteer programs, or is this sort of thing unique to the Philadelphia Zoo?
We’re about average, I think. But we definitely have a rather large volunteer program compared to other cultural institutions in the city.
Why do you think it is that the zoo is so popular with volunteers?
It’s definitely the passion for animals. But we get high school students who are looking to get experience or fulfill community service hours. We have retired people who tell us “I should’ve become a veterinarian, but became an accountant instead, and now it’s my second chance to work with animals.” We have teachers who explain that this is what they were born to do: To teach — and animals are their passion.
Can you tell me a bit more about what it is your volunteers tend to get out of their work at the zoo — how they benefit?
Well, particularly with our docent program, we’ve found that the volunteers have created families for themselves with the other docents. When they have important or unfortunate things happen in their lives, they really come together for each other. Some of them don’t have families, or their families aren’t nearby, and the zoo really does become their family.
Is this also what you enjoy most about leading the zoo’s volunteer efforts?
I love that I’m able to connect people with their passion, and to help create their family for them. When a docent says to me, “This is my family,” that, to me, is the best reward. And I love that I’m working for an organization whose mission I truly identify with. I also love that I can help spark that career passion in the student volunteers, and show them how much they can do to help animals, even if they’re not planning to go to veterinary school. So many of these interns, in fact, are now our employees.
Really? Does the zoo often hire its interns or volunteers?
If you look at our keeper staff, almost all of them started out as an interns — if not with us, than as an intern at another zoo. And actually, our director of conservation, Kim Lengel, started out as a volunteer and intern, and our director of education was a college intern as well. And on the flip-side, we have a couple of volunteers who started out as employees, and then retired, but continue to volunteer.
Last question: Where can our readers go to find more information about your volunteer programs?
They should visit the volunteer pages of our website.
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