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Brookfield Zoo volunteers keep things running smoothly for guests

Published: Thursday, April 17, 2014 4:32 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 17, 2014 4:56 p.m. CDT
(Photo provided)
La Grange resident Ken Grzeslo, a volunteer at Brookfield Zoo for 19 years, engages children in a variety of animal and nature-play activities. He and his wife, Valerie, who has been a volunteer for 24 years, can be seen at the Hamill Family Play Zoo exhibit on alternating Saturdays.
(Photo provided)
Brookfield Zoo volunteer Barbara Loomis shows off an alligator skull to children at the zoo. Loomis will be honored for 25 years of volunteer service at the zoo this month.

BROOKFIELD – It takes a lot to keep the Brookfield Zoo running smoothly.

The world renowned zoo requires a multitude of animal caretakers – vets and scientists – to make sure the animal attractions are healthy and well cared for. But for many visitors of the zoo, the employees they are most likely to have contact with are the small army of volunteers that assist in educating the public, directing visitors around the many exhibits and attractions and helping out at special events.

To keep things running smoothly, the zoo depends on about 700 hardworking people who volunteer their time each month, according to Regi Mezydlo, the zoo's director of volunteer engagement.

"We depend on them for everything from educations to special events and just making sure visitors are able to have a great day at the zoo," Mezydlo said.

Why do they do it?

"It's a love of animals and people – you have to love people too – that bring most people [to volunteer]," Mezydlo said.

In fact, many love volunteering so much, that some have been volunteering for as many as 40 years, Mezydlo said. That's not bad, considering the zoo's volunteer program is 43 years old.

"They're passionate and extremely loyal people," she said.

Brookfield resident Carol McBride-Leslie is one of them. McBride-Leslie lives just a few blocks from the zoo's main gate, and when she was looking for a volunteer opportunity to help her community, she said she just had to look down the street.

"I get to see the animal," McBride-Leslie said. "And I'm a gardener so I like seeing all the pants coming up in the spring and the displays."

Meeting the visitors who come through the zoo's gates each year has also been a positive, she said.

"I find myself simply going up to people on the [zoo's] streets – it's interesting to see where they're from and talk to them."

McBride-Leslie, who has been a volunteer for five years will be one of many volunteers honored by the zoo at a ceremony and recognition dinner April 27. Last year's dinner had about 600 guests, including zoo volunteers and their families, according to Sondra Katzen, spokeswoman for the zoo.

La Grange residents Ken and Valerie Grzeslo are another pair of longtime volunteers. Ken joined the program in 1995 and Valarie started in 1990. Valerie Grzeslo got involved in order to avoid having to dissect a frog in a college biology class she was taking. Students who didn't want to cut up the amphibians could choose to volunteer with animals instead. It was an easy decision to choose the zoo, she said, and she hasn't looked back.

"I'm a CPA, so it's a good mental health day for me – I get to be outside and talk to people, meet the kids," Valerie Grzeslo said.

Likewise, after seeing Valarie's enjoyment, Ken Grzeslo had to get involved too.

"It's a great place and it's right in our backyard," Ken said. "You get to meet a lot of people and fun getting into it."

Barbara Loomis, 89, of Downers Grove is the oldest zoo volunteer. Not in terms of length of time with the program, but by age.

Loomis serves the zoo as a docent, the volunteer position which requires the most training. Docents lead the educational series for zoo visitors, in addition to helping people find their way around. They are trained and educated about the many species on display, she said.

"I feel like it was the equivalent of two college classes," Loomis laughed as she recalled the extensive training.

Being a longtime volunteer – she will be honored for 25 years this year – has its perks as well.

When she was awarded for 20 years of service, she got a backstage pass to the sea lion exhibit – close enough to rub the fur – which she has a prized photograph of.

"It's a wonderful environment," Loomis said of the zoo. "Your common bond is you're working with other people who also love animals. It's very uplifting. I look forward to my day each week."

But her favorite part of volunteering, as most other volunteers said, was really being around people. Loomis said the educational aspect of working with children especially has encouraged her to continue with the program for so many years.

"The kids go absolutely bonkers," she said of the excitement students feel on their field trips to Brookfield Zoo. "It's nice to be able to teach them something and see their reaction. It's wonderful."

She recalled a recent volunteer day when a man from Poland approached her just to say thank you.

"He said he was thankful he got to show it to his children," Loomis said. "It's moments like that."

Those interested in becoming a Brookfield Zoo volunteer can find more information online at

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