Meet the Zoo’s Green-Shirted Guides
They greet guests at Lincoln Park Zoo’s gates, point them to favorite animals, procure strollers and wheelchairs and hand out maps. On busy days they smile at 10,000 visitors and tell 1,000 of them where to find the restroom. They help locate lost children.
The zoo’s Guest Relations Volunteers—GRVs for short—aren’t super heroes. Their green-shirt and khaki uniforms don’t come with capes. But as public-service multitaskers at an institution that attracts more than 3 million people every year they might do more good than Superman and Wonder Woman combined.
“Our volunteers are the best zoo advocates in my mind,” says Director of Volunteer Services Betsy Maher. “They do it for free, and I think that really registers with our visitors.”
GRVs form the front lines of the zoo’s welcoming committee. There are other volunteers and staff educators on grounds. They all support the zoo’s core mission of conservation and care in direct or tangential ways. But GRVs are often the first and only zoo representatives with whom visitors have contact.
“For that reason we’re very picky about who gets to do it,” says Maher. Robotic service is not the goal. “We tell them during training that interactions should never look the same because each visitor is different.”
It’s that fluid spontaneity that keeps GRVs coming back—in some cases for a very long time.
“I missed three weeks in a row last year, but that was unusual for me,” says Chelle Cain, a GRV who’s notched an astonishing 40 years of service in different volunteer roles at the zoo. Cain notes that friendly conversation flows both ways. “I get a lot of comments from visitors about how wonderful the zoo is. They’re amazed it’s free.”
Cain and her fellow GRVs work morning or afternoon shifts on a weekly basis. They arrive at the zoo, collect their assignment in an office area at the Helen Brach Primate House, then disperse around zoo grounds, moving from one spot to another every hour.
“It’s quite flexible,” says Chris DuFour, who’s been a GRV for four years. “We might be running wheelchairs around, walking visitors halfway through a building while providing them with a little background on animal names and ages or sparking up a conversation with kids about what animals they like.”
DuFour, a computer programmer at an investment consulting firm, looks forward to swapping his office cubicle for the uplifting aspects of his weekly commitment.
“Saturday mornings I’m almost skipping to the zoo,” he says. “I get to hang out in a beautiful park and basically be nice to people.”
An affinity for animals comes naturally to DuFour. Growing up in Indiana, he visited Lincoln Park Zoo as a child with his dad, a veterinarian who knew Marlin Perkins, the zoo’s legendary director from 1944 to 1962. Yet he’s quick to assert that for GRVs people take precedence.
“First things first, it’s about making sure everybody has a great time," he says, “and addressing anything they might perceive as wrong.”
DuFour also strives to convert compliments into public support for Chicago’s landmark free zoo. Guests who want to make a difference are directed by GRVs to Gateway Pavilion or the zoo’s website where they can become a member, make a donation or purchase a gift package through the ADOPT an Animal program.
“One great question we get all the time is ‘How does the zoo stay open for free?’” says DuFour. “The zoo has generous donors but also 16,000 members from all walks of life who help keep it going. If someone has time, I’m happy to give them my 1-minute sales pitch on membership.”
It’s just one more super way the zoo’s Guest Relations Volunteers use their powers for good.
By Craig Keller • Published January 27, 2014 • Originally published in Winter 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo magazine
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Volunteer at Lincoln Park Zoo
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