Wildlife Immersion and Leadership Development
The W.I.L.D. Program was launched at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2016 to provide culturally-diverse teens in Jacksonville with innovative leadership and employment opportunities. Developed in response to the Mayor’s Jacksonville Journey initiative, it is modeled on programs our Executive Director, Tony Vecchio, has implemented at other zoos.
As employees of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, the W.I.L.D. Program participants, all between the ages of 14 and 19, create outreaches to deliver to the community. These outreaches are free and delivered to an organization or facility that has been influential in the teens’ lives. These educational outreach programs aim to address the very real issue of promoting and re-imaging the campaign for environmental literacy.
Like many of the other zoo jobs, no two days within the W.I.L.D. Program are ever quite the same. While each day they become stronger environmental educators learning techniques in interpretation, public speaking, and program development, they also learn the fundamental principles of zookeeping and horticulture. Today, could see the teens serving as representatives for the JZG at a local environmental festival or collaborating with the National Park Service to do hands-on conservation work like removing invasive plants on the beaches. On the other hand, tomorrow, the teens could team build by exploring those very greens spaces they help preserve through kayaking, archery, hiking, gardening, fishing, and camping. Nevertheless, each day is filled with invaluable leadership lessons and social bonding experiences.
While the teens involved become adept at environmental education, ultimately, the W.I.L.D. Program promotes self-awareness and confidence, broadens the teens’ capacity as emerging leaders, and builds an effective, inclusive team. These teens are the face of the zoo in their community, and voice of their generation for the environment.