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Fund ensures local kids get chance to visit zoo

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Posted at 11:00 AM, Jan 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-08 11:00:44-05

CINCINNATI -- As 2015 drew to a close, organizers, fundraisers, educators and participants of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden’s Living Classroom Education Access Fund had reason to celebrate.

Nearly 18,000 students from under-resourced schools took part in free educational field trips to the zoo last year. In addition, 855 students spent the night for free as part of the Nocturnal Adventure Program. The charitable program is designed to bridge the gap, making hands-on learning available to all students.

According to the zoo's grant manager, Jane Horine, the zoo recognized a need for the program following the economic downturn. She explained the zoo designed a number of award-winning educational programs during 2006 and 2007, but many schools could no longer afford to participate due to funding cuts.

“And that downturn really affected already under-resourced schools disproportionately, so here we had all these resources at the zoo and the very people who could benefit from them the most weren’t able to participate,” she said.

The living classroom experience stresses a hands-on learning experience. Photo provided by the Cincinnati Zoo

Since the access fund’s beginning in 2012, zoo education program manager Melinda Voss said they’ve served nearly 50,000 students at a cost of a $150,000 per year -- raised strictly through private donations and grants. The living classroom experience is designed to supplement curriculum from the classroom, bringing to the table real-life examples of animals, conservation and science-based education.

“Over 18,000 kids who’ve come in one school year experienced what we think is really critical: hands-on education that engages all of their senses,” Voss said. “It’s totally different, obviously, from a classroom experience and just completely invaluable. We have some great quotes from teachers talking about how important that experience has been to those kids.”

In addition to the educational daytime field trips, Voss said the fund also provides access to a variety of the zoo’s wildly fun overnight adventures, which allow students to sleep outside the manatee tank, spend the night in the education building just near the indoor tropical rain forest or even camp outdoors in tents by the Africa exhibit. She said each experience teaches kids different aspects of biodiversity and conservation.

“The great thing about the overnight is you’re doing something really cool: You’re seeing things that you would never see during the day, going behind the scenes and meeting animals up close,” Voss said. “You wake up and you hear the lions roaring or Mexican wolves howling and it’s unbelievable. Or falling asleep with those manatees circling your feet. I’ve done it many times, and it never gets old. It’s amazing spending the night here at the zoo.”

Due to the program's overwhelming success, Voss explained they’d like to expand the range of programs to reach not only schools, but individuals and families. She said they offer great after-school, summer and preschool programs that they would love to offer to qualifying families. Voss also said it’s sad that, for many of the children in Avondale, the zoo is essentially in their backyard, but their families lack the resources to take part in all the benefits.

“The intention is to get kids coming to programming consistently here at the zoo with the point being that we focus on whole child development, so not just great science education, but also child development like confidence, leadership skills and communication skills,” she said. “So that’s also what we’re going to make available to these underserved, economically disadvantaged children through a new avenue of this access fund.”

To qualify for LCEAF, schools must have at least 70 percent of their students taking part in free or reduced-price lunches. Since starting the fund, Horine said they’ve been able to accommodate all qualifying requests, including 33 percent of schools that had never visited the zoo prior to the program. Before making the commitment, she said they first needed to raise enough funds to sustain the program for three years running.

Along with educational daytime trips to the zoo, the LCEAF also gives students the chance to spend the night at the zoo. Photo provided by the Cincinnati Zoo

“We knew that the program was going to cost around $150,000 per year, and we knew that we had to have funding secured before we launched” Horine said. “This kind of program is not something you want to launch and stop because schools begin to really count on it being offered.”

The zoo’s young professional board, the Ambassador Council, got the ball rolling by committing all 2012 through 2014 proceeds from their Zoo La La fundraiser to the LCEAF, with an ongoing commitment of at least $25,000 per year thereafter. Horine explained corporate donations came in from the Duke Energy Foundation, Proctor & Gamble Fund, Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America (TEMA), Time Warner's Connect a Million Minds Program and the U.S. Bank Foundation.

All told, she said they were near $90,000, with the final two grants putting them over the top coming in from the Helen G, Henry F. and Louise Tuechter Dornette Foundation and the John A. Schroth Family Charitable Foundation.

“With our original sources and those two grants, we had well over what we needed for three years of program operation, so the program was launched in November of 2012,” Horine said.

In 2014, additional funds arrived from the Virginia W. Kettering Foundation and Mathile Family Foundation to extend LCEAF benefits to Montgomery County schools in the Dayton area. While commitment is strong for the next couple of years, Horine said they continually send out grant requests to keep the program available to those in need.

“We’ve got the money for next year, but it’s important to keep on fundraising to ensure we have the funds,” she said. “What we would love to do is have an endowment to fund this – we’re always looking for additional funding.”

Donating to this particular cause allows donors to see tangible results, explained Russ Doyle, director of major gifts and strategic initiatives for the zoo. He said people often feel deeply connected to the zoo and make donations due to their own personal experience or that of a family member. In fact, Doyle said, some children recently set up a donation as a gift for their mother on her birthday. Afterward, Doyle said, she was so excited she asked if she could stop by and visit one of the classes.

“So I set it up, she got to come in and the kids all brought little thank-you notes for her,” he said. “She got to meet all the children who were benefiting directly from the fund, and it was a great moment.”

For so many Tri-State residents, going to the Cincinnati Zoo on field trips was a rite of passage, Doyle explained, something all schools took part in. Unfortunately, he said, that’s not the case anymore with continual budget cuts to already-underfunded educational institutions. While the majority of funding currently originates from corporations or foundations, Doyle said they also accept donations from private individuals – whatever they can do to keep the program going.

“If people want to support it, they could email me at Russell.doyle@cincinnatizoo.org,” he said. “I would be happy to see all these emails come in! You better believe it.”