After finishing her first year at UW-Madison, undergraduate student Shun Zhou faced a difficult choice: return home to China or stay in Madison for the summer.
She decided to stay and enroll in two intensive courses, but Zhou also wanted to do more with her time. So she followed up on something that’s always interested her and registered as a first-time Badger Volunteer.
“I think I’ve always wanted to do some volunteer job…for me, it’s kind of a reassuring time that’s different from school work and other things, that makes me feel better,” said Zhou. She was interested in an opportunity that would be fun and help improve her communication skills.
After looking at the available community partner sites, she decided to volunteer with guest services at the Henry Vilas Zoo, a brand new opportunity for Badger Volunteers.
Lynn Pawelski, who serves as the volunteer director for the Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo, supervises the team and was central to establishing the zoo as a Badger Volunteers site.
Pawelski says zoo staff rely “really heavily” on volunteers to serve as the face of the zoo and ensure that visitors are having a positive experience, especially since the zoo does not charge admission and relies entirely on community support for funding.
“The more people we’re getting out on the grounds at those critical spots, the more likely a guest is to leave going, ‘wow, I really had a great experience at the zoo,’” said Pawelski.
The inaugural Badger Volunteers team, led by rising senior Kelly Laskowski, has so far done something different every week of volunteering this summer. Their work ranges from welcoming guests at the front gate and helping operate the carousel, to teaching “zoo school,” an educational program for children about the zoo animals.
Laskowski, an Early Childhood Education and Spanish major, chose to lead the team at the zoo for the chance to be outside and work with kids every week in each different setting. “I really like just being able to help people make their family experience for the day a little easier,” she said.
Making a big statement
Pawelski emphasized the individual contributions of volunteers as a whole make a much bigger statement. “Honestly, the entire zoo, I think, is a public service,” she said. “Everybody comes here, so you truly do see a cross-section of the community…we are here for everyone.”
The diverse identities and backgrounds of zoo guests mean Badger Volunteers are uniquely able to reflect and respond to the communities which interact with the zoo, says Pawelski.
“We have such a diverse student population, and that’s a great place for us to go to pull a more diverse cohort here,” explained Pawelski.
Pawelski emphasized that while the students are doing an important service for zoo visitors, the zoo also focuses on the well-being of its volunteers. In addition to providing a great study break, she said volunteering at the zoo can be a relaxing and “smile-filled” way to give back to the community.
Laskowski agrees. “It’s really fun, you get to meet other Badgers and it’s a good way to make friends with similar interests to you,” she said. “Why not make it a weekly thing that’s helping everyone?”
Zhou says the opportunity to volunteer at a place like the zoo is especially valuable for out-of-state and international students.
“A lot of people here are very nice and kind. It’s just good to enjoy this relationship with people,” she said. “If [international students] come back home, they may miss something very important here.”
Before returning to help families off of the zoo train, Zhou added that her first time as a Badger Volunteer is already giving her a greater sense of belonging at UW-Madison and in the city itself.
“I definitely see the spirit of public service here, and I also saw that there are a lot of different volunteers here,” she said.
“In a way, I am in this community.”
By: Gilly McBride