Friday, December 31, 2010

The zookeeper

I haven't asked Ben what he wants 'to be' when he grows up for years. But a story in the new BLOOM magazine woke me up. It's an interview with author Amy Baskin about the dearth of possibilities for young adults with developmental disabilities. When they age out of high school at 21, they're not qualified to do anything, nor are they entitled to any ongoing education or daily activity. There are limited traditional options, like sheltered workshops where participants make 40 cents per hour. Or they can sit at home and watch TV all day. But if you want your adult child to have a meaningful life -- something that speaks to their passions and dreams -- you have to create it for them.

So after all these years, I asked Ben again: "Where would you like to work when you're older? Where would you like to have a job?"

"The zoo," he signed.

"What would you do there?"

"Feed the animals."

My son fancies himself a zookeeper, throwing silvery fish and corn husks to the polar bears.

I fell into a terrible funk this afternoon as we walked around the pavilions at the Metro Toronto Zoo, spread over miles, recognizing that this dream is not practical for a child who can only hobble along for a few minutes at a time. He sat in his wheelchair with his face close to the glass, watching the zookeeper on her elevated platform lob lunch to the lumbering bears with dirty coats. "When can I feed them?" he signed.

I asked the zookeeper if visitors were ever allowed to throw the food. No, she said. The animals receive limited portions that couldn't be divvied up among the hundreds of children who would line up.

Ben stretched out his hand to shake hers.

"How do you become a zookeeper?" I asked.

"They look for people with a biology background," she said.

I wasn't sure if "they" were universities recruiting people into their zoology programs or zoos themselves.

I googled "How to become a zookeeper" and found this interesting piece by someone from the Jacksonville Zoo. They have about 100 applications for every spot, it says. Interestingly, the minimum requirement is a high-school degree (which Ben won't get). The HR person says the best way to get your foot in the door is to volunteer at a zoo and get as much experience as possible with a variety of animals.

I searched our Toronto Zoo for volunteer opportunities but the website states that volunteers "have no direct contact with animals or plants (I did touch some enormous fuzzy leaves today on a tree in an exhibit that mimics the Indonesian rainforest!)."

This weekend, one of my daughters was asked to look in on a hamster who's going solo at a neighbour's house. "That's the perfect job for Ben!" I told my husband. Ben doesn't have the strength to walk a dog or lift a big bag of pet food, but hamster food can't be heavy. However, when I asked if Ben could feed the hamster, my daughter was nonplussed.

I'll have to put the word out that Ben is looking for odd jobs.

I wrote an article years ago about a single dad who was pounding the pavement looking for job opportunities for his teenage son who had Down syndrome. I didn't realize at the time that I would eventually wear his shoes.

I'm in a parenting marathon that has only just begun. But I already feel burnt out.

How do you pace yourself and keep your spirits up?

Happy New Year!


One day at a time, Louise! A job for Ben will come. It will. He has the desire for one and so do you. I'm thinking some sort of animal farm that's on the smaller side -- a place where he could volunteer now and perhaps have one of his own one day?

Louise, you totally crack me up because I am burnt out already freaking out about this stuff and my daughter is only three.
I think it would be wonderful to have Ben working at the zoo or with neighbourhood rodents. I hope there is a way to make this happen.
Happy New Year!

Maybe he could volunteer at a pet store or get a job at a pet store? Or an animal shelter? I know our animal shelters are always looking for help. Just a thought :) Hope he finds something he will truly enjoy.

Pacing isn't easy...deep breaths and the one-day-at-time thinking that Elizabeth spoke of do help. Remember that we're in this thing for the long haul...(which is actually a really wonderful thing, when I step back to admire the daughter who brings me to this place).

The other side of the coin says that it's VERY good that you are thinking ahead to a fulfilling future for Ben. Adult opportunities are tough to come by. Some of the most creative and enriching solutions I've heard of are ones designed by special needs parents, whether individually or collectively.

There is so much to be said for volunteerism; that's where I see my daughter contributing. After all, the sense of contribution can be an important reward. Especially for a person who is on the receiving end of so much physical care. She seems less motivated by pay (odd, know) than knowing she's helped in some real, tangible way. The hardest part for me right now is helping her find ways that *she views* as being a meaningful contribution.

This is an important discussion...thanks for bringing it up!

Thank you everyone!

Elizabeth -- I don't know if Ben really WANTS a job. But I hope we can build his interest in some kind of work/volunteering.

Lisa -- Ben was able to help "feed" the hamster today. But the house is on a hill up a million stairs so it was pretty painful for him getting up there!

Azaera -- Ben couldn't do the physical work I think is required for a job at a pet store or humane society. But I think perhaps he could volunteer with a worker.

Rose Marie -- thank you for posting. I just popped to your blog and it looks fascinating. You and Elizabeth are right re one day at a time. It's something I have to work on. I can't wait to hear more about your daughter. Perhaps you can do a blog for us? What are the kind of things your daughter would find "meaningful" in terms of volunteering?

Earning a job or acquiring a skill that will allow for gainful employment is the most difficult hurdle that a persons with disabilities face in their adult life. For instance, there are several factors to considers: the severity of one's disability, how to best educate your child in accordance with that disability, and whether a disability will change or worsen in time. However, children and parents are, for the most part, unaware of these factors, as they only learnt through experiene.

So, here are my words of wisdom for the day:

1) Try anything and everything, even if you may think that it is beneath you. Time changes things.

2) Don't be afraid to try again or start over.

3) Slyvester Stallone, in Rocky Balboa, said, "Life isn't about how hard you hit; Its about, 'How hard you can get hit and keep moving forward'"

Matt Kamaratakis

I just stumbled upon your blog and I love it.
I have a son, Cody, who has multiple disabilities. He is 29 years old and attends a Day Program. I remember feeling the same way you do now and I agree with Elizabeth. One day at a time; it does you no good to worry about things to come. I do like that you are ACTIVELY looking for answers, instead of just stewing about it. Have you considered seeking out the "higher ups" at the zoo to see if your son can volunteer? Sometimes it is a matter of talking to the RIGHT people.

Did I mention that I love your blog? :)

Snippets 'N Stuff

Thank you Matt for the brilliant words of wisdom! I hadn't remembered that quote from Rocky!

dluvscoke -- welcome to BLOOM! I would love to hear more about your son and his life. Perhaps you can write a guest blog for us?