Hannah Smith’s love for animals and eagerness to learn about wildlife caused her to join John Ball Zoo’s Zoo Teen Program. As a junior at Grand Haven High School, Hannah travels 45 minutes to Grand Rapids to volunteer in the summer program. Little did she know that the program would eventually help her overcome personal obstacles and benefit her socially.

“I love being around animals and volunteering at John Ball Zoo. This sounded like the perfect way to spend my summer,” Hannah says. “But one of the hardest challenges I had to overcome was my social anxiety. I have suffered with it my whole life, but volunteering at John Ball Zoo forced me to put myself out there by interacting with other teen volunteers and the zoo’s visitors. At first it seemed impossible to do, however, now it’s second nature.”

The Zoo Teen Program at John Ball Zoo was started 15 years ago for high school students interested in volunteering and sharing information about the zoo and its animals with guests. Teens are required to apply, write an essay and participate in an interview before they start working at the zoo.

The program is 10 weeks long, running from mid-June to mid-August. Teens are stationed throughout the zoo to talk to guests and answer questions they have regarding the zoo’s wildlife or the zoo itself. They also assist keepers with some of their daily tasks and learn what is required to become a zookeeper.

“A rewarding part of the program is seeing individuals grow over the course of the summer, and sometimes over four years,” says John Ball Zoo’s Assistant Education Program Manager Nick Milbratz. “Some of the teens even go on to work at John Ball Zoo. To see that passion for wildlife is amazing.”

At the end of the year, John Ball Zoo holds an appreciation dinner for the teen volunteers and their parents to attend. The teen coordinators give out several awards. Hannah kept a positive attitude and motivated the group, and ultimately was selected for the Leadership Award.

“Through the Zoo Teen Program, teen volunteers and I worked on a very cool project, and I made sure that things were getting done,” Hannah says. “I helped disperse all the work and I tried to make sure everyone’s ideas were being heard. I tried to help by always giving credit where credit is due.”

According to Hannah’s parents, Robin and Scott Smith, Hannah also learned valuable interviewing skills for the future, which she used while applying for a junior volunteer position at North Ottawa County Hospital and West Michigan OsteoScholars.

“It’s great hearing her talk about her passions without anxiety getting in the way and seeing her blossom throughout the whole experience,” Robin says. “Her dad and I were so proud of her winning the Leadership Award, but I was not surprised. She worked really hard this summer. The Zoo Teen program has helped shape her into the confident, caring young lady she is today.”

Not only has the program impacted Hannah and other teens, it has also advanced the zoo as a whole.

“The Zoo Teen Program is a benefit to John Ball Zoo because it educates future leaders to help further its mission to be actively engaged in the conversation of wildlife and our natural environment,” Nick says.

“I, without a doubt, see myself continually growing at John Ball Zoo,” Hannah says. “Through the Zoo Teen Program, I am coming more and more out of my shell.”


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