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Students Pounce on Belize Zoo Project

 Students Pounce on Belize Zoo Project

09/10/2013 

A SUNY Cortland project to make The Belize Zoo fully accessible to the public wasn’t inspired by the usual means: a fuzzy, feathery or slithery zoo mascot.

Instead the Belize Zoo Transformation Project, which mirrors the College’s more comprehensive initiative to make New York state parks and recreational areas available to all — the SUNY Cortland Inclusive Recreation Resource Center — finds its source in a very special Belizean, Jerome Flores.

Perhaps the zoo’s biggest fan, since childhood Flores has loved visiting its rescued carnival menagerie and newer acquisitions. He eventually came to work for the zoo. But more recently, the middle-aged man was seriously injured in a fall at a different job and now must use a wheelchair to get around.

The zoo had accessible walkways inside, but not long ago Flores found himself stranded outside in the zoo’s gravel parking lot.

Then along came a class taught by Vicki Wilkins, a professor of recreation, parks and leisure studies at SUNY Cortland. Her students raised $8,860 on campus during the Fall 2012 semester through a 50/50 raffle, prize raffles, a breakfast, and t-shirt and bracelet sales. They donated a wheelchair to the zoo in their professor’s name.

And during spring break in March, Wilkins and the nine undergraduate and three graduate students enrolled in her Special Topics in Recreation and Leisure Studies course flew to the tiny, sparsely populated country on the northeast coast of Central America to put the donations they had raised to good use, making the entrance walkway to the national zoo reachable by anyone. They also adapted newly constructed restrooms outside the zoo’s entrance, dug holes to plant landscaping and visual barrier poles and marked driving slots for the vehicles of visitors with restricted mobility.

Pounding a pit to plant a tree
During Spring Break, this was one of many recreation students volunteering to buid an accessible pathway into The Belize Zoo. Above left, a surprised student gets a lick from a furry zoo resident.

“The students hauled wheelbarrows,” Wilkins said. “It was a mix of the bags of powdery cement-type stuff and sand. They were trying to create a surface that wasn’t bumpy, one that wouldn’t jar the person who was sitting in a certain kind of wheelchair.”

“It was hard work, long hours,” said Corey Samot ’13, an East Hampton, N.Y., native who is interning this fall with the Austin (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department. “But overall it was a great sense of accomplishment knowing that we had all done something to give to the community there in Belize; and the community for those who will get great use out of the walkway, parking lot and bathroom.”

The students and a two-man work crew labored under the watchful eye of the zoo’s facility manager, Tony Garel, who is probably one of the most knowledgeable Belizeans about the Americans with Disabilities Act which impacts current U.S. construction. A week later, the zoo’s former gravel pathway was a hardened, but porous walkway leading into the zoo.

“I was so very impressed with the high level of enthusiasm and direction shown by Vicki Wilkin’s class, as they worked tirelessly on our pathway project,” said the zoo’s director, Sharon Matola.

“I learned a lot from (Wilkins) and I loved how she jumps right into the trenches with her students,” said another student, Sarah Olear.

“If Vicki can’t or won’t do it, she does not ask her students to do it,” said Olear, a graduate student in therapeutic recreation and outdoor and environmental recreation who has interned with SUNY Cortland’s Inclusive Recreation Resource Center and serves the College’s AmeriCorps program as a volunteer. “She encourages people to be themselves and creates a safe learning environment where people are free and encouraged to ask questions and air their opinions.”

Wilkins said that all of these improvements have made the zoo perhaps the most accessible public facility in Belize.

“The zoo is ahead of its time and will now be a model for the country,” Wilkins said.

“I’ve been to The Belize Zoo two other times previously, and I went to the zoo before this class,” said Olivia Joseph, a senior therapeutic recreation major from Fayetteville, N.Y. “To see the before and after was to see how far we have come. And the awareness level has increased about peoples’ levels of ability.”

On the students’ last day on the project, Flores rolled up to try out the walkway and visit all his “friends” inhabiting the zoo. It was a sight to melt the hearts of most any student, as well as the most seasoned Cortland faculty and zoo staff.

“The highlight of the pathway project was getting to meet Jerome,” said Olear, a LeRoy, N.Y., native who has a bachelor’s degree in zoology from SUNY Oswego. “He impressed me so much. He is in his thirties and has experienced so much and is such a nice, genuine guy. He has huge dreams and is working on accomplishing them.”

The students also rode bikes beside Jerome on his hand cycle as he toured the rural roads for the sake of promoting accessibility awareness and empowerment.

“He also wants to spread awareness about disabilities in Belize,” Olear said. “Jerome wants to help people realize that being functionally different is not a disability, it is just a difference and everyone has differences.”

“It was nice to see that (Jerome) even helped out the building part of it,” Joseph said. “For the accessible sidewalk we had to put in the holes for a row of palm trees. Those holes were brutal. There were rocks and stones and we were trying to dig them out with cups. He took a long metal stake and pounded inside the holes to break up rocks.”

“So they met the man who was the inspiration,” Wilkins said. “And the students inspired Jerome, he was so emotional. He spent time with me talking about his hopes and dreams for Belize with accessibility.”

“These students were awesome,” Wilkins added. “I’ve never felt this way about a group of students. I do this kind of thing all the time, and I was amazed at the work they do.”

“I had a desire to work in this field because I am a people person, I love helping others reach their summit and I love coaching,” Samot said. “I really enjoy bridging the gap. It is a great feeling accomplishing this.

“After my internship … I plan on sticking with therapeutic recreation,” he said. “My goal is to run an adaptive motor sports program where all will be able to ride dirt bikes, quads, go-karts, jet skis or whatever it may be I fall into depending on where I end up.”

Flores promotes the expansion of access in Belize when not working as a furniture maker. He is now a hand cyclist with his eye on the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.

Project organizers plan to include Jerome in future course modules as the class helps him add new miles and enlighten more of the public as he journeys to the Belize capital Belmopan. Belize lacks a program to help Flores pursue his Paralympic dream, so Wilkins enlisted a friend and gold medal Paralympian living in Colorado to help their new friend.

Jerome Flores visits zoo with SUNY Cortland students
The recreation students met the inspiration for their dedicated efforts, Jerome Flores.

For their efforts, the student participants earned 30 hours of the College’s service learning credit and were rewarded with a snorkeling trip and excursion to the site of Mayan ruins. Everyone took photos and four of the students — Sarah Olear, Hunter Aldridge, Ariene Balbach and Sarah Powers — used the pictures to make a video of their experience.

In the summer after the program, Wilkins returned to the zoo with Thomas Pasquarello, a SUNY Cortland professor of political science who is the College’s unofficial zoo liaison and involved in some of the College’s other Belize educational programs. Wilkins and Pasquarello presented the class gift; the students’ “thank-you” wheelchair festooned with their signatures and “paw prints,” and a sportier model donated by the IRRC.

Wilkins, Pasquarello, Lynn Anderson, who is Wilkin’s recreation, parks and leisure studies colleague and director of its IRRC, and others worked hard to make this and future project visits succeed. They had visited the zoo the summer before to lay the groundwork. They collaborated closely with zoo staff once they learned of the need and enlisted the College’s official Belize liaison for all College programs, Nancy Adamson, to help orient the young volunteers to their quick immersion in a very different, English and Creole-speaking culture.  

Wilkins was glad to leave all the logistical details for the 12 students in the capable hands of International Programs staff, who help coordinate the study abroad experiences for some 400 students in 20 different countries in a given year and are responsible for a host of other campus internationalization efforts.

Mary Schlarb, who directs International Programs, views the course’s popularity as the illustration of a trend seen in other programs in Belize and other countries, which is to embed a study abroad experience into a course and perhaps include a hands-on learning experience.

It’s affordable to set up a program there and for students to visit in a short timeframe, and the culture is really quite unique, she said.

“It allows the College to be very strategic about what we can manage with limited resources,” Schlarb said.

This fall, future participants are once again raising money and donations on campus to renovate and improve the accessibility of the zoo’s playground with advice from the zoo’s playground equipment supplier KaBoom.