This volunteer profile was originally posted in UConn Extension News.
The call of birds in the distance accompanies us while walking through the farmyard of Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport. Cattle amble up to the fence in greeting, and bison graze on a hillside in the distance. A wolf watches our progress as we move through the different habitats on the 52-acre property. UConn 4-H youth members experience this twice per month with the Connecticut Beardsley Zoo 4-H Club. It becomes a life transformative experience that shapes their college plans and careers.
All this is possible because Linda Tomas, a UConn 4-H volunteer and Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo employee shares the magic with youth members of the club. Tomas grew up in Monroe, Connecticut. Her home was next to a large field and she brought the frogs, snakes, and caterpillars home. It was only natural that she studied zoology with an animal behavior concentration at Southern Connecticut State University. Tomas interned at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo during college, working with the animals and then returned and became a full-time employee after graduation.
Edith Valiquette, the UConn 4-H Fairfield County Educator, recruited Tomas as a volunteer in 1990, and she started the Connecticut Beardsley Zoo 4-H Club. The zoo provides support by hosting the club and having other staff members involved in the initiative.
“One of the big reasons to have zoos is it prompts kids to think about nature,” says Gregg Dancho, director of Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo. “Beardsley Zoo is a wildlife habitat for the animals that are here and those that come in from the outside. We want it to be natural and an integral part of the community.”
The Connecticut Beardsley Zoo 4-H Club
The Connecticut Beardsley Zoo 4-H Club meets on Sunday mornings twice per month from September through May. The first meeting focuses on club business, the youth plan field trips, club activities, and public speaking events. A member of the zoo staff or another outside speaker also presents an educational topic.
The second monthly meeting is in the New England Farmyard. Members work with one of the animal areas for the year, feeding, cleaning, and providing animal enrichment. They can rotate to another animal area the following year.
“We started with a small group of youth,” Tomas recalls. “They work with our Heritage livestock breeds in the New England Farmyard. Up to 20 members are in the club each year; the current group is mostly 13-16-year-olds.”
The club uses national 4-H curriculum, and has public speaking, leadership, and civic engagement as focus areas. Members enhance their public speaking skills through presentations for zoo visitors. They also compete in county and state 4-H public speaking contests. Many club members have attended Citizenship Washington Focus and other national 4-H leadership programs.
“I have a great sense of pride listening to the youth presenting on the stage at the zoo and watching them with their animals. They have so much enthusiasm when they’re working with the public,” Tomas says.
Parents often add their youth to the waiting list before they turn seven to ensure they can take part since there is so much interest in the program. Those who join the club remain members for an average of seven to ten years. Tomas has mentored over 150 youth in her 35 years as a UConn 4-H volunteer.
“It’s rewarding to see the youth with the animals and watch them grow, earning respect from the animals,” Tomas says. “I also enjoy watching them teach the younger members. Seeing what careers, they pursue after 4-H is the final reward.” Many alumni have enrolled their children in the club, a true testament to the program’s value.
Over the years, Tomas has taken youth on field trips to other zoos throughout the Northeast and hosted sleepovers at the zoo. Youth work with Citizen Science projects and the myriad of other initiatives the zoo offers too. Recording and reporting rainfall was a recent opportunity.
Tomas has donated thousands of hours as a UConn 4-H volunteer, and other staff at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo are also instrumental in the club’s success. They provide support and resources during every club meeting and activity. Each new group of youth excites Tomas, and she is building a sustainable club model with her assistant leaders and the zoo staff.
The experiences youth have at the zoo are magical and inspire their future, what feels like a day at the zoo is a life transformative experience shaping our future leaders.
UConn 4-H is the youth development program of UConn Extension with the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR). As part of the University of Connecticut, 4-H has access to research-based, age-appropriate information needed to help youth reach their full potential. The mission of 4-H is to assist all youth ages 5-18 in acquiring knowledge, developing leadership and life skills while forming attitudes that will enable them to become self-directing, productive and contributing members of their families and communities.
Follow UConn CAHNR on social media