Zoo-based AmeriCorps member looks to engage community, build relationships

_mg_6601-ben-beckley-americorpsMy name is Ben Beckley, and I am here through the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program. AmeriCorps is like the domestic version of the Peace Corps. The mission of VISTA is to alleviate poverty and build capacity for self-sustaining movements within the community. It’s uncommon to have a VISTA working at a zoo rather than a more direct service non-profit, but Dallas Zoo’s education department wants to be more involved with its surrounding communities through outreach programs. The AmeriCorps program allows them to do that, while also tending to its own goal of alleviating poverty.

I moved to DFW from Indiana with an English degree from Ball State University. This Hoosier ended up here because it seemed like the job I would enjoy the most out of the available AmeriCorps project sites. So far, that belief has held firm. It has been a wonderful ride.

Over the next year, I am creating a project partnering with schools and organizations in Oak Cliff. The reason for targeting Oak Cliff is twofold: for one, the community has a huge disparity of wealth – where one street has rundown houses and broken sidewalks, and the next one over has million-dollar abodes with well-manicured lawns. Two, Oak Cliff is in the Zoo’s neighborhood, and serves as a good starting point for the revitalization of the community outreach program.

My project aims to educate young and old learners and provide opportunities for work and life experience through community action – like litter clean-up, habitat revitalization or a community garden. I also aim to build a community volunteer service that will continue educating and working after I leave. My second function here is a youth volunteer coordinator. This includes revising evaluation methods, working with the volunteers and finding ways to expand the Zoo’s volunteer program in new and exciting ways.

The connection between the Zoo and alleviating poverty might seem thin at this point, so let me elaborate. I am working with mostly primary and middle school youth to help them learn about conservation and community involvement in conjunction with what they are learning in school. With the AmeriCorps position, I am not directly servicing the community, but “building capacity.” This means instead of telling them what to do, I give am giving the community the tools to make a difference as they see fit.

For this project, I’m using a framework called Roots & Shoots. It’s a student-driven exercise crafted by the Jane Goodall Institute that lets kids take charge of the project and steer it through community research and classroom discussions. Ideally, the students’ parents will be involved, so they can take the project to their neighborhoods and start the movement of change throughout the community.

All in all, there is still a lot to do with the project, and it will be a few years before we begin noticing tangible results. However, I am ecstatic to be here to get it started. I have had nothing but a warm reception from all my coworkers in the Zoo, and it certainly has felt like the right fit for me. I look forward to continuing my tenure here! And please, if you have any questions or just want to chat, feel free find me in the Children’s Zoo.

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